COVID-19 dramatically altered the work landscape for Ontarians, and the province is trying to chart a new post-pandemic path. It's put together a Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee to assess how it should adjust its employment and labour policies to adapt to the many ways the working world has been and is being transformed.
So what did the pandemic reveal, and how do we need to change?
TVO.org speaks with Rohinton Medhora, president of the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation and chair of the Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, about the promise and perils of technology, the data we need to gather, and the future of working from home.
TVO.org: The committee looked at issues that came up during the pandemic as well as longer-term issues that predate the pandemic. Let's start with the long-term.
Rohinton Medhora: Long before the pandemic started, technological change was affecting the way we work and what we do already, in three ways. One, as every technology does, it allows you to do things faster or to do more. So technology was altering the way we work. Second, and there's controversy around this idea, there was a sense that automation — robotics and machine learning — were actually threatening jobs and labour. In other words, as more and more jobs were automated, we would need fewer people. And that would mean, for the first time in history, technology would destroy more jobs than it created. And then third, technology, well before the pandemic, was blurring the distinction between home and office.
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And so along comes the pandemic. I'd say the pandemic showed that we could do more from home. And so that third trend of blurring the distinction between home and office was highlighted.
And one of the things that struck me was the Statistics Canada paper that found that, in January of this year, something like 32 per cent of Canadians were mainly working from home. Just five years ago, that figure was 4 per cent. So the pandemic forced us to use technologies that already existed to work from home.
The second thing the pandemic raised was something some of us have known for decades, something we call the digital divide — that not everyone has the capability or luxury, even in advanced countries, to work from home. Some people still have to go to work.
And the third thing that I thought the pandemic brought out was how some people and some groups in society are willing and able to adapt faster than others. So the pandemic really added octane and accelerated trends we were seeing already.
Medhora: A bit of both, obviously, but let's begin with the clarity. I would say the pandemic showed, as the statistic I cited demonstrates, that technologies allow us to do a lot more away from the traditional office space than we had thought. But I also believe that the pandemic clarified, to use your word, the limits of that. I run a policy-research institute. And I can safely say to you that everyone working from home is not a long-term solution. They're intangible, but there are some things for which human interaction in-person, exchanging ideas, running into each other in around the water cooler and the washroom and the cafeteria, those kinds of things matter. Human beings thrive when they're with each other. That's how ideas form. That's how teamwork happens. And so I thought the pandemic also clarified the limits to the trend of working from home.
Where are we still muddy? I'd say we don't know where those limits are, number one. Number two, for a lot of the things we talk about, we realize now that we don't have the statistics and the conventions for them. When we say there are limits to how much we can work from home, we don't have a way of measuring those intangibles, mostly. We don't even know what exactly an app-based worker is and isn't. We don't have the statistics to understand the gig economy as well as we should. And, so, policymaking, in some cases, is happening, as it often does, in the absence of full information.
TVO.org: The committee was formally constituted in June, and you've already submitted your report. [It is currently being reviewed by the government and is in the process of being printed.] These workplace issues the committee considered are really complex. Do you feel this was enough time to really get at them properly?
Medhora: I have no doubt that, as one of the laws states, work expands to fill the time given to it. For a topic this complex, one could argue there's never enough time. But one has to be pragmatic, and if one wants policy responses, then one has to act. It was a very intense few months of work. We met with and received submissions from literally hundreds of groups and individuals. And we did benefit tremendously from other work that the province had done on the subject and work that other jurisdictions have done.
And we walked our talk: Because of the pandemic, we never met in person, as a committee. All of our hearings were virtual, and our own deliberations were virtual. And it was a learning and sobering experience, to have to do all of this work without having the conventional mores of how work gets done. Not to say that our work suffered — far from it. I thought we were able to meet more often and more intensely because of virtual work.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.