The pandemic forced a massive shift in how Canadians work: In 2016, 4 per cent of those aged 15 to 69 worked most hours from home. As of the beginning of 2021, that number had risen to 32 per cent.
While survey and polling data show that most reported feeling productive and mentally healthy, some remote workers ending up feeling burned out — and that has Kate Cassidy worried. “To me, those are warning signs that the right plans aren't necessarily in place for the long run,” says Cassidy, an adjunct professor in Brock University’s department of communication, popular culture, and film.
And it looks as if many employers will need to start developing such long-term plans: While about 61 per cent of Canadian jobs cannot be regularly performed outside specific locations, research indicates that 29 per cent of Canadians working from home would like to continue doing so, and 44 per cent would prefer a hybrid model. Only 27 per cent favour a full return to a physical office.
Most new teleworkers did feel they were as productive at home as in the office, but some reported declining productivity, citing barriers including childcare, accessing work-related information/devices, and inadequate space and internet speed. The top barrier cited was lack of communication with coworkers.
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So what kinds of processes can employers set up to get the best out of remote work — and counteract the downsides?
Cassidy, who coauthored a policy briefing for the Niagara Community Observatory, says the issues that underpin most concerns about remote work boil down to one thing: relationships. “If you have strong relationships, you tend to know what matters to people. You know their personality, you know their working style, you're more tolerant to communication, and you feel safer to ask questions,” says Cassidy, whose research involves collaboration and well-being in the modern workplace.
The briefing is partially based on interviews with 14 executives and employees, as well as 13 interns, who worked at 24 different organizations (22 of which are in Niagara). Cassidy heard stories, she says, of people joining organizations as remote workers and leaving quickly. “People are thinking it's probably to do with not having formed that feeling of connection with the other staff members.”
Some younger workers — who, according to Angus Reid, were more likely to refer to their work-from-home productivity and mental health as “awful” or “challenging” — told Cassidy that, for them, the workplace is a central location for social relationships.
Dolores Fabiano, executive director of the South Niagara Chambers of Commerce, says that “folks who are maybe just starting out or aren't as established within their career, they're more eager to get back into the workplace, because they just don't have that network.”
Judene Pretti, the director of business services for co-operative and experiential education at Waterloo University, says thousands of co-op students at the school switched to remote internships last March. Pretti, who also directs the school’s Work-Learn Institute, was part of a team that published research based on student surveys which focused on that experience.
According to the research, students reported lower levels of informal communication and connection with their colleagues. “You have to be more intentional about setting up a meeting or reaching out to call someone as opposed to walking down the hall and bumping into someone,” Pretti says. Additional research found that fewer students felt they had enough opportunity to develop a professional network, compared to the pre-pandemic period.
“Initiative has always been important when you're trying to make an impression in a short amount of time,” Pretti says. “But in the remote setting, it’s easier to sort of fade into the background. You need to be in those virtual meetings and putting up your hand to say: Hey, I could help with that.”
According to Anthony Marco, president of the Hamilton and District Labour Council, losing a sense of connection with coworkers can also be risky, as that may make it more difficult to bring up workplace issues, such as those related to bullying. Drawing on his background in occupational health and safety, Marco says that workers — especially those who feel their employment is precarious — already hesitate to raise such concerns with management, “unless they've established a relationship where they feel like they can do that.”
Remote workers may also face issues sharing the context of complaints, Marco says. In a physical workplace, there may be multiple witnesses or multiple workers discussing a problem, but someone working alone may struggle to back up complaints: “If you don't think that anybody else is having the problems that you are, standing your own against the manager can be intimidating.”
Cassidy says that on a basic level, remote work makes sharing culture harder, defining culture as “the thing that tells people how to behave.” In a physical workplace, that can mean how the space is decorated or how people dress, interact, and structure their days. Seeing the CEO joke around with workers, she notes, can suggest how mistakes will be treated or suggestions will be taken.
Agenda segment, November 1, 2021: Is the Great Resignation Underway in Canada?
That leaves employers with a challenge: how to best support communication when no or few workers are actually in the office. “A concerted effort must be made to provide space for relationship-building and informal dialogue to recreate office connections regardless of where employees are located,” the brief reads.
Cassidy says she’s heard about employers introducing virtual coffee breaks, logging on early to talk about the weekend, and connecting people with shared skills or hobbies. In the Waterloo survey, some students said they appreciated informal socials, birthday celebrations, and games because they felt more engaged.
Pretti says research shows many young workers want to make social connections at work. “Students are looking for meaning in their work. So how do organizations convey that? How do organizations build in those opportunities to build informal and professional connections? Sometimes that's through formal mentorship programs. Sometimes that's setting up opportunities for the students to check in with others on the team.” She says that even experienced workers can benefit from such connections.
Fabiano notes that many managers have not been trained in how to manage a remote team. To address this, the Chambers will be delivering a training series in which supervisors will learn how to measure remote workers’ performance, communicate meaningfully, and understand employees’ wellbeing using a series of lectures, case studies, and practical exercises.
But the onus is not entirely on employers — Marco says workers should take initiative here, too. “Finding a way that you can still have ongoing communications with your fellow workers is important, even if it's not necessarily in your workplace … so that you don't feel like you're on an island and you don't feel like you're alone out there.” It is a challenge, he says, but the work is worth it.
Cassidy agrees, saying remote work “has the potential to be quite a revolution in building a workplace that is productive for organizations and also helps individuals flourish.”
“I think what would be amazing and very interesting is if we can take the time to think about what makes people both happy, and gives them meaning, to ensure that they're productive and moving towards shared goals in a way that works for everyone.”
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