The return to the office can’t just be dictated by the executive class

OPINION: As soon as public-health measures end, businesses are going to push to get workers back in their cubicles Monday to Friday. That’s a decision too big to be left to the bosses
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 26, 2021
According to a recent survey, only 17 per cent of workers want to return to completely in-office work, while 44 per cent of their bosses do. (Vladimir Vladimirov/iStock)

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The roadmap Premier Doug Ford laid out last Friday suggests that, if all continues to go well in Ontario, we’ll start seeing the end of major public-health measures in early 2022; even indoor-masking rules could be gone by March. With nearly 90 per cent of the eligible population having received at least one dose of a vaccine, and the immunization of children five to 11 poised to begin any day now, there’s reason to be optimistic that true normalcy could return before Easter next year.

What “normal” means will be different for everyone, of course. For most, it will involve the opportunity to go out with friends and family without worrying about giving or contracting a potentially lethal disease. For the country’s not-so-poor, never-forgotten business class, it appears a return to normalcy will mean horsewhipping workers back to their cubicle ranches — whether they like it or not.

“You can’t build a company and a company culture that’s cohesive just working from home,” CIBC CEO Viktor Dodig told an audience last week, explaining why he doesn’t expect the company’s hybrid work arrangements to long outlast the pandemic. The Toronto Region Board of Trade has for months been urging businesses and government to get workers back into the city’s office towers and issuing dire warnings about a 60 per cent decline in foot traffic in the downtown core and economic ripple effects that spread far beyond the empty towers. 

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This is one of those times somebody in government should ask the uncomfortable question: So what?

It’s not, after all, the government’s job to be particularly fussed about the corporate culture in individual firms. And “corporate culture” itself is sort of like “neighbourhood character”: when it isn’t simply an oxymoron, you’ll find the places that squawk loudest about protecting it are very often the places that don’t really have it in the first place. The government obviously should be fussed about the total number of jobs in the province and upholding labour standards, but the issue of whether a food court in downtown Toronto’s PATH system has enough lunchtime customers arguably … doesn’t fall within its purview. 

So what is the government’s job? Well, the province of Ontario committed tens of billions of dollars to infrastructure projects — subways, light rail, highways, bridges — whose primary justification (when the government bothers producing one) is about shortening commute times, which could bring about environmental benefits as well, if people maybe, possibly switch from cars to trains.

But the pandemic has demonstrated that we could do something even better than shortening a car commute by two or three minutes at the cost of billions of dollars or maybe opening a new subway line 15 years from now at the cost of billions more: we could dramatically reduce the need for commuting in the first place. The infrastructure to do so largely already exists in Canada’s biggest cities, and where internet service is currently sub-par, it could be improved at much, much lower cost.

Remote work offers us a pain-free way to manage the workweek demand for roads and transit — one that doesn’t involve political non-starters, such as road tolls. It also offers workers greater flexibility in their own lives, making it easier to juggle the other commitments they have, and could even help rebalance some of Ontario’s economy away from the two big growth centres, Toronto and Ottawa, and toward places that were largely left behind in the economic expansion that happened after the 2008 recession.

The problem is that, if the return to offices is dictated by the executive class, this opportunity will be wasted: according to a survey conducted for Future Forum, fully 75 per cent of executives want to return to the office three or more days a week, while only 34 per cent of their workers do. Only 17 per cent of workers want to return to completely in-office work, while 44 per cent of their bosses do. 

The solution is for the government to take action before the pandemic ends. Labour Minister Monte McNaughton introduced legislation this week that would require employers to introduce “right to disconnect” policies, meaning that workers couldn’t be contacted by their companies when they weren’t on the clock. 

McNaughton should go further: He should add a requirement for “work from home” policies that identify duties that can reasonably be carried out away from the office — and that, wherever possible, permit workers to spend no more than three days a week in the office (preferably fewer). That would still allow for lots of in-person time to capture some of the benefits of office contact, while dramatically reducing the need for workday commuting. A solution that would arguably be less intrusive and possibly more effective: simply require that workers be paid for the time they spend commuting. That would force managers to actually think about the costs they want to impose on the rest of us.

(Either solution could work, but the former would also be a godsend for the hundreds of thousands of Ontarians who work with some kind of mobility impairment but didn’t always get a lot of accommodation from their employers pre-pandemic.)

The Tories have been trying of late to brand themselves as the party of the worker, as a government willing to take the side of the little guy against the bosses. They should take the side of the little guy on this one: if they don’t, the executives of the world will massively over-correct from COVID-19 times and drag their workers back to their office for work that doesn’t need to be done there, imposing massive, wasteful, and avoidable costs on us all.

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