Before the pandemic, Monica Dedich worked from home two days a week and went into the office three days.
The Montreal mother of two young children prefers working from home full-time so, with the possibility of a return to the hybrid arrangement looming, she started a new job that will allow her to be home permanently. Last September she started her new job as the senior content and communications manager at coding and technology education company Lighthouse Labs.
“It wasn’t the deciding factor, certainly, but it was definitely one of the considerations for me,” Ms. Dedich says. “I do enjoy working from home for a lot of different reasons. Knowing that this was the model moving forward, I think kind of helped make my decision a little easier.”
Lighthouse Labs, which had physical locations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Victoria, Ottawa and Montreal when the pandemic began, won’t return to in-person work coming out of the pandemic.
The company pivoted to online coursework when the shutdowns started two years ago. Postpandemic, it may offer in-person courses on-demand, but it won’t have permanent school locations, says Jeremy Shaki, co-founder and chief executive officer. It may arrange co-working spaces for those employees who want the option but Lighthouse Labs is done with offices, he says.
“We had multiple locations in different cities and, being part of this software world, we were exposed to a lot of different remote ways of working even when we were in-person,” Mr. Shaki says.
When the pandemic forced the doors to close, he says it created an opportunity to fast-track the virtual office.
“I don’t know that I could have mandated a work-from-home company prior to this,” he says. “People were just too committed to wanting to be in-person; every meeting needed to be in-person.”
He says there’s value in in-person interactions, but believes flexibility for staff to live where they want outweighs the drawbacks.
The company has 115 employees across the country and a few outside of Canada today.
“We never had anybody working for us in New Brunswick before. I now have four people in New Brunswick. We never had people working for us in Nova Scotia. I have three people in Nova Scotia,” he says. “Somebody just rented a house for four months in Mexico. They didn’t need approval from us as long as they’re able to work.”
The virtual office isn’t for everyone. Mr. Shaki says a handful of employees have left the company because working from home permanently wasn’t for them.
“They need in-person. And they weren’t ready to commit … which I totally respect,” Mr. Shaki says.
That wasn’t the case for Ms. Dedich.
With a five-year-old and a three-year-old at home and a husband who works non-traditional hours, she happily ditched the daily commute and the traffic calculus of child-care dropoffs and pickups. She can also shift from mom mode to career mode without sacrificing one or the other.
“If my kids need to be picked up last minute for whatever reason, I’m available and it just makes me feel better about that part of my life,” she says. “I feel like I don’t have to constantly make a choice between having to be a present mom and a present employee and career person. Both are important to me and working from home … has made that balance easier.”
Flexible work is feasible
Ms. Dedich is among the 28 per cent of employees who want to work remotely from now on, according to a recent report for the Conference Board of Canada. The same report, Remote, Office or Hybrid: Employee Preferences for Post-Pandemic Work Arrangements, found 23 per cent want to return full-time to the office. The rest want some form of hybrid arrangement.
“The last two years have been a massive global experiment around flexible work and it’s demonstrated that flexible work is very feasible,” says Susan Black, CEO of the Conference Board of Canada.
She says that there has long been discussion about how to increase work flexibility, particularly for women.
“There was always this reticence, this sort of ‘if you can’t see them, it’s not going to be productive.’ That’s not true,” says Dr. Black, who has a PhD in organizational studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business and an MBA from Harvard University.
“The big take-away is this is not a flash in the pan. Hybrid work, remote work – call it what you will – this will now be a key feature that the vast majority of employees who work in offices who do professional kinds of knowledge work, they are going to expect it.”
People tend to be more satisfied when they have control over their work environment, she says, and remote workers save time and money on commuting.
Navigating the pitfalls of working from home
Still, there are downsides to remote work. Employees whose social life intersects with their work life, often early-career employees, aren’t going to get that working at home, Dr. Black notes.
“For some people, it’s simply lonely to work at home, particularly if you are on your own,” she says.
And remote work also does seem to make it more difficult to work in teams.
“Or at least we have to work harder doing that team-based work, work that requires high degrees of collaboration, brainstorming, bouncing off each other,” Dr. Black says.
Some people are good at setting themselves up to work from home; others are not.
“When the end of the day comes, they shut the door and they’re off the clock; they’re not working any more,” Dr. Black says. “For other people, that’s much harder. Sometimes they literally don’t have a door to shut, so it spills over. They ended up doing more hours of work.”
In the longer term, some fear the impact on career progression, she says.
“As organizations go back to some kind of hybrid – a few days in the office, a few days out of the office – there is a bit of a fear that if I’m not being seen, that’s going to handicap my career,” Dr. Black says.
Hybrid will differ for every business and sector, she says. Leaders will have to be very intentional about how they design that hybrid workplace to work for them and about employee expectations.
“It has big upsides, but it’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of organizations to get it right,” she says.
At Lighthouse Labs, Mr. Shaki says the company set out to make work-from-home work. Every employee got a desk, a chair, and a proper internet set up.
Most importantly, those with partners or kids in their homes were encouraged to establish rules around work.
The company established its own protocols but trust is key, Mr. Shaki says. He’s not concerned whether employees take time to pick up the kids or go for a walk.
“For me, it’s about getting stuff done,” he says.
He suggests everyone go into the virtual workplace on equal footing, meaning even in a co-working space everyone is online individually for meetings.
The company has organized online social events such as virtual cocktail hours and an online murder mystery event so staff can get to know one another and employees who live in proximity sometimes get together in real life for a coffee or a beer.
“I do think work from home has the potential, if it’s not done right, to have some mental-health implications,” he says.
Lighthouse Labs is investing in mental-health supports and training, he says.
“My No. 1 piece of advice is to be intentional,” Mr. Shaki says. “You need to understand how people are going to work differently now, and you’re going to need to help them. Because major changes like this are massive disruptors to the way a company works.”
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