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Will the nature of work shift to match our pandemic-driven priorities?

Some people are itching to get back to the office after an extended period of working remotely. Others want to continue working from home now that they’ve got a taste for the flexibility of remote work.

To get people back into the workplace, employers will have to make physical changes to the layout, implement new protocols and integrate vaccination passports into the mix. With the latter group, practices may have to be altered to allow people to continue working from home indefinitely. There may be some resistance, but in a tight job market, concessions will have to be made.

A shift to remote work offers the chance for employees to find a better work-life balance, an equation that has drifted in the wrong direction for years.

That equation is top of mind for workers just now, with a study released last week by ADP Canada and Maru Public Opinion indicating work-life balance now outweighs pay as an incentive for current and prospective employees. The study found respondents prioritizing work-life balance as a top factor for remaining in their current workplace and when exploring new opportunities.

When asked why they decided to change their career path, working Canadians cited changes in their  personal lives (33 per cent), the need to limit workload and stress (29 per cent) and the desire for more flexible hours (28 per cent) as their top three reasons, underscoring that work-life balance played a key role in their decision for change, according to the survey.

“The data shows there has been a significant shift in what working Canadians value within their current workplace, and what they’re looking for from future employers,” says ADP vice-president Heather Haslam. “For what appears to be the first time ever, more and more Canadians – especially those who work remotely – are prioritizing work-life balance, over salary.”

Employers are aware of the changing market: nearly three-quarters of business owners plan to offer employees the opportunity to work remotely after the pandemic, according to a BDC survey released last month.

Some 74 per cent of small- and medium-sized business owners say they will offer their employees the opportunity to continue working remotely, with 55 per cent of employees saying they prefer to continue working remotely as much or more than they do now. As well, 54 per cent of employees say access to remote work will be a determining factor in applying for, or accepting a new job.

BDC’s findings noted that the proportion of SMEs with at least half of their employees doing remote work has doubled, to 42 per cent from 21 per cent pre-pandemic.

“For more than a year, many Canadian entrepreneurs have pivoted to remote work to limit the spread of the virus. Our findings show that for most businesses, the benefits are so important that they want to keep offering it even once the pandemic is over,” says Pierre Cléroux, BDC’s vice-president of research and chief economist.

“The impact of the shift towards telework should not be underestimated,” Cléroux warns. “Remote work can give employers the opportunity to hire qualified candidates they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, especially in a tight labour market.”

While some workers see an advantage in working remotely, others note there’s no separation between work and home life, with the job creeping into non-working hours.

Still, there is the possibility of reversing the trend toward longer workweeks.

The 24/7 world has more of us working outside traditional hours, plugging in electronically to the workplace and spending less of what free time we have engaged in physical or cultural pursuits.

As individuals and as a society, we are paying a steep price for this time crunch. We’re less healthy, both physically and mentally. We have less time for personal pleasures. And we’re more dissatisfied with the quality of our lives.

Kids, too, are feeling the crunch. Family time suffers as parents work evenings, weekends and rotating shifts. Only 35 per cent of teens 15 to 17 years of age, for instance, sit down to a meal with their parents on any given day, down dramatically from 64 per cent in 1992.

In the bigger picture, it’s our way of life that really has us behind the eight ball. We want more, and we want getting it to be convenient. That comes with a price to society as a whole.

Coupled with the now well-documented problems of our economic system, our wellbeing has suffered accordingly.

There’s a greater demand by consumers for services in the evenings, weekends and holidays. This demand has been met by increasingly loose government regulations (e.g., opening hours for retailers on Sunday). As a result, a higher proportion of adults are working nonstandard hours. There has also been an increase in the proportion of working adults engaged in precarious work (e.g., temporary contracts with limited or no employee benefits, job insecurity, short tenure, and low wages).

Even vacations stress us out, as surveys have found, noting more than half of Canadian professionals feel they don’t have enough vacation time, and aren’t reaping the full benefits of the time off they do have. About a third report they are worried about their colleagues absorbing their workload, and some 40 per cent said they were concerned about the amount of work that would await them when they returned. Indicative of our plugged-in world,  more than a third of workers admitted to checking in with the office at least once or twice a week while on vacation.

Under the modern influence, we’ve become short-term thinkers: the next purchase, the next paycheque, the next bit of pleasure. Just as that kind of thinking has crippled our economy – think about all the companies using today’s stock price, this quarter’s numbers as an excuse to downsize or move offshore, not to mention the scams and financial shortcuts – it trickles down into our everyday lives.

The good news is that there are some people starting to challenge some decades-old assumptions about how we organize our society. Just as the environmental movement, for instance, started with a few voices in the wilderness and gradually grew to become mainstream thinking, so too can we hope for improvements in our lifestyles that might yield more leisure time. The need for such changes is reflected in recent quality of life reports, which both chronicle our current state and call for improvements.

Common themes point to the need for family-friendly policies for all workers and supports for seniors. It’s time to modernize Canada’s work and social policies. Family-friendly work policies would include more flex-time, job sharing, better parental and eldercare leave benefits, better vacation benefits and a shorter work week.

Still mostly utopian, that goal is nonetheless worth pursuing. The first step, however, requires that we recognize the need to change course. The pandemic has brought that into sharp focus.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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Please read our privacy policy.

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