What does the future of work in Ontario look like?
The Ministry of Labour tapped economist Rohinton Medhora to find out. A four-day workweek? He’s not saying no
You’re the chair of an advisory committee on the future of work in Ontario. What made you the guy for the job?
I’ve been working on questions of growth and economic development for more than 30 years, first as a professor at U of T and more recently as the head of a think tank where we’ve focused on understanding the relationship between work and new technology.
How do you explain the so-called great resignation we’re seeing play out?
A few things are at play. CERB payments have probably disincentivized some workers from returning to their jobs in the short term, in some cases for very legitimate reasons. But the larger issue is a skills mismatch. During the pandemic, people resigned from one field to retrain for another, and CERB gave them the opportunity to do that.
Your committee has produced a lengthy report containing 21 recommendations. In a nutshell…
We need to prepare for a future in which work is fluid. It used to be university or college, get a job, retire from that field 40 years later. The new career path will be less fixed, and full of transitions. That will require retraining.
And how can government facilitate that?
Our report recommends removing age-based restrictions on accessing scholarship funds or tax deductions. Another recommendation is to incentivize employers to partner with the employee to support lifelong learning.
How much recalibrating have you done in your own career?
My doctoral dissertation was on monetary arrangements in francophone West Africa, which is pretty far from the things I’m working on today.
Which recommendation do you expect will get the most pushback?
The idea of a “dependent contractor” status—not employees but not strictly contractors, either—for Uber drivers and other gig workers. It’s probably going to feel like too much from one side and not enough from the other. The other is about the right to disconnect—the idea that workers shouldn’t be expected to answer calls and emails after hours.
Do you find you can put the phone away?
I have soft rules rather than hard. My wife and I don’t have children, so we have different considerations. I won’t say I never look at my BlackBerry, but I try not to. It would have to be something very important to respond on a Saturday evening, although I find Sunday morning is a good time to get work done.
You still use a BlackBerry?
For the physical keyboard. I dread the day I’ll have to use a touchscreen.
What do you make of the four-day workweek? Wishful thinking?
I don’t like the idea of wishful thinking. If we start with that attitude, we’ll never create change. Visualize a world in which you are only online four days a week, and then work backwards to make it happen. Will things change overnight? No. In five years? Maybe.
Your report addresses how employment and geography are no longer as linked as they were before the pandemic. Is that good or bad for the city?
It’s a tremendous opportunity. In the report we cite Bermuda and Estonia, which offer incentives to attract so-called digital nomads. Unlike those places, Ontario has its own tech and banking sectors and so is in a great position to attract the best talent. The other thing is that workers no longer have to live downtown to work in the financial sector, which opens up the talent pool even more.
So what do you say to those bosses who want butts back in ergonomic chairs ASAP?
I’m a big believer in the water cooler phenomenon—the idea that there are benefits to personal interaction that can’t be replicated virtually.
Of course, but what about the benefits of WFH?
A lot of people enjoy skipping the commute, having flexibility in their schedule and spending time with family. That makes a lot of sense. I think the future will be a hybrid.
Is that an option you will take advantage of?
I’m an office guy. Even with my commute from Toronto, I started coming back to my office in Waterloo as soon as it was safe. Maybe it’s the ergonomic chair.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.