COVID,  Future of Work,  Research,  Trade Unions

The Future of Working from Home

The historic expansion of remote and home work during the first stages of the COVID pandemic was both extraordinary and vitally important in helping families, and the economy, through the challenges of that crisis.

Some two-thirds of employed Canadians worked totally or mostly from home at some point during the pandemic. Remote work was essential to preserving incomes, maintaining economic activity, and providing essential services at a time when face-to-face encounters were potentially deadly.

Previous research from the Centre for Future Work, through our PowerShare project, highlighted both the dramatic expansion of remote work during the pandemic, and several important issues raised by the practice: including the need to consider working hours, safety and ergonomics, privacy, and work-family balance issues in designing fair and sustainable work-from-home systems.

In the course of this urgent natural experiment, workers, employers, and organizations had to quickly rise to the challenges of the moment. In doing so, they implemented innovative work practices, technologies, and ways of working together that proved so successful, most home workers want to keep doing it.

To further investigate the experiences of Canadian workers with these expanded remote work arrangements, the Centre for Future Work participated in a research consortium, The Shaping the Future of Work in Canada Project, to undertake original survey research into how Canadians’ jobs changed during and after the pandemic.

The Project was financially supported by the Future Skills Centre, and overseen by a consortium of researchers including Dr. Graham Lowe (project lead), Frank Graves (EKOS Research), Dr. Karen D. Hughes (University of Alberta), Dr. Merv Gilbert (workplace safety consultant), Dr. Pamela Sugiman (Toronto Metropolitan University), and Jim Stanford (Centre for Future Work).

The project gathered data from over 5,800 respondents in all regions, industries, and occupations. The findings were striking, and shed important light on why people who worked from home during the pandemic are so intent on being able to continue working that way – at least some of the time. EKOS Research provided the survey research expertise to support this project.

Key findings include:

    • People who worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced considerably higher levels of job satisfaction (70-83%) and overall positive well-being across 14 distinct measures.
    • Home-based workers overwhelmingly want to continue working from home: 40 per cent want to do so all of the time, and another 56 per cent most or some of the time. Just 4 per cent of remote workers want to return to their regular workplace full-time.
    • Their motivations for continuing home=based work are broad and powerful: saving time and money on commuting tops the list (with 94% of home-based workers listing it as a major benefit), but other benefits are also strongly appreciated (including better safety, less stress, and general well-being.
    • While remote work shows to enhance workers’ job quality and well-being, it appears to have weakened the employment relationship, with 42% of those who had been working remotely at some point during the pandemic agreeing that remote work had made them feel less attached to a specific organization or employer.
    • Meaningful consultation and negotiation regarding the future of home work will be important to shaping how remote work practices evolve in the future. Only half of home-based workers had been consulted by their employers about an eventual return to traditional work sites – and even fewer (less than 40 per cent) were satisfied with their degree of input into those discussions.

The issue of remote and home-based work was thrown into the spotlight by the recent work stoppage involving over 150,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada employed at a number of federal government departments. Negotiating future remote work protocols (rather than having those terms unilaterally dictated by the employer) was a central issue in that dispute. The eventual agreement included important new provisions ensuring individual flexibility in work-from-home arrangements, written commitments and written reasons for refusal of workers’ requests (subject to review and appeal), and the creation of joint union-management committees to oversee remote work practices in each department.

The PSAC strike was a high-profile example of discussions over the future of home work that are occurring in workplaces across Canada, both private sector and public. Clearly, giving workers a meaningful say in the future of home work is vital to allowing the many benefits of remote work to be maintained, while striking a reasonable balance with the concerns of employers.

In this commentary published in the Globe and Mail, consortium members Graham Lowe, Karen Hughes, and Jim Stanford discussed the importance of negotiation and consultation in shaping future remote work arrangements.
Extensive media coverage has considered the significance of the PSAC negotiations as a precedent for work-from-home protocols in other workplaces. As the Centre’s Director Jim Stanford explains, “The workplace has changed since the pandemic ... and a lot of employees are very reticent to give up some of the gains that they’ve acquired over that period."
See a complete report on the Shaping the Future of Work in Canada findings, published by the Future Skills Centre.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.