The post-pandemic future: Employees will work wherever they want

The post-pandemic future: Employees will work wherever they want

Zabeen Hirji is executive advisor on the future of work at Deloitte

If someone told me in January that by April five million of the 12 million employed Canadians would be working from home, I would not have believed them. And yet once Covid-19 hit, governments and organizations prioritized the health of workers and communities and declared that only essential workers could go to their physical workplaces, with the rest of Canada working from home. Sure, WFH was in place prior to the pandemic, but it was more of an exception than the rule. Within a few days it became the norm.

While a return to the workplace has already begun, many workers will continue to work from home while physical distancing is required. When we ultimately land on the next normal, we’ll see a blended model of office and home, based on flexibility and employee choice.

Let’s start with head office employees, often called knowledge workers. A finance manager might work in downtown Toronto but live in Brampton with his family. In this mix-and-match model, he’d be able to do a lot of his work from home, where he has secure access to company systems, reliable Internet access and a quiet dedicated space to work, where he can meet with his team, peers and manager via video. He could do three days a week from home, which would be a game changer for his family’s quality of life: less time commuting, breakfast with the kids, after-school pick-ups, the occasional midday run in the neighbourhood park. The other two days, he’d be in the office and able to meet face-to-face with his team and colleagues. Certain meetings, conversations and relationship-building sessions are better done in person.

Other people might find different combinations that work. For example, imagine a marketing director who lives in a small condo in midtown, a 10-minute walk from her office. She might want to be at the office every day, with quick access to colleagues, informal lunches with co-workers, as well as face-to-face meetings with clients—she finds eight hours of video calls every day draining. People like her might occasionally work from home, but there’s no set pattern.

There could be many variations. Some employees might work from home only in the winter to avoid difficult commutes, or grandparents might work from home in the summer to help care for their grandkids. Others will work mostly from home, and are already moving out of the GTA to smaller communities, where housing is more affordable and the pace of life is slower. The lockdown gave people a taste for a different lifestyle.

It is estimated that 39 per cent of jobs in Canada can be done predominantly from home. So what about the other 61 per cent, the people whose work requires them to interface with co-workers, customers and the public, or who need to use specialized equipment? Progressive organizations will look for ways to improve the quality of life for these employees. They might consider four-day work-weeks, or a day off every two weeks, giving people time to take care of their other responsibilities and freeing up the weekends for relaxation.

Businesses will have to figure out how to manage this new flexibility, but there are benefits for them too: a smaller real estate footprint jumps to mind, as does the positive environmental impact. But there’s more to the story: skills shortages will continue to grow, and flexible arrangements will be required to attract and retain talent. In order to survive and thrive, businesses will have to listen to their employees, to consider their need for creative solutions. For many employees, this will be their first time having a say in how they work and where they do it.

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