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Tutors who are part of Chantale Alvaer’s Quebec-based company, SOS Profs, want to continue to work remotely, even though many parents want their kids to return to in-person tutoring sessions.Adil Boukind/The Globe and Mail

As small business owners enter the third summer of COVID-19, new challenges continue to rear their heads. With safety protocols well-rehearsed, this season’s hurdle is managing the expectations of a work force that increasingly desires the option to work remotely.

Chantale Alvaer, founder of Quebec-based tutoring company SOS Profs, is in the midst of ironing out a new system for her team of 207 tutors. Matching tutors with families that live in the same neighbourhood had always been a logistical challenge for the company, so when COVID-19 forced students and tutors indoors, virtual tutoring solved many challenges and offered a welcome solution. Now, parents are done with online learning and want tutoring to happen in person again. But not the tutors.

“The tutors absolutely do not want to go back,” Ms. Alvaer says. “We did a survey with 145 tutor respondents, and 47 per cent would choose not to travel to work, even with a gas incentive. Seventy-five per cent of tutors think we should charge for travel time as well. These extra costs would make tutoring more of a luxury service.”

Technically, Ms. Alvaer’s business is one of the many that can be conducted in a remote or hybrid style – something Statistics Canada reports is possible for 40 per cent of the nation’s jobs. The same report showed that in 2020, roughly 60 per cent of Canadian employers expected at least some of their staff to continue to work remotely post-pandemic. Now, for small businesses like Ms. Alvaer’s, the challenge is figuring out a hybrid structure that meets workers’ needs and the business’ needs at the same time.

“Once size doesn’t fit all when it comes to how you structure hybrid workplaces, but you’ll have a hard time attracting and retaining quality people if you force people to come into an office every day,” says Phil Simon, author of Project Management in the Hybrid Workplace. Mr. Simon has spent years helping organizations craft workplace norms and deploy the right software for effective collaboration.

“There’s this feeling that we have an opportunity to reclaim our lives. We like work to revolve around our personal life now, and we don’t want to give it up. Despite that, the Society for Human Resource Management found seven in 10 managers are more comfortable with in-person work environments. It’s just what they’re used to.”

Mr. Simon says issues like the bias against employees who don’t come into the office as often as their peers is a risk for hybrid teams.

“Proximity bias is a huge issue, where the inclination is to say that the person who shows up in person is the harder worker,” Mr. Simon explains. “The feeling is that when we don’t see someone, we don’t trust them as much. Especially for new hires who don’t already have the social capital in a company, there can be suspicion about whether someone the boss can’t see is really working.”

Mr. Simon says that although remote work has added a great deal of complexity to simple tasks, small businesses may have an advantage over bigger companies when it comes to making hybrid set-ups work.

“Data suggests that a bunch of issues compounding is what ultimately slows companies down the most. With a small business, you probably have an intuitive sense of issues on your team, or if a project with a client isn’t going well. That’s a lot harder with groups of 150 and up.”

For Dorothy Eng, executive director at non-profit Code for Canada, hybrid work has been a long-time practice. Her core staff was required to be in office two days per week before the pandemic, but they collaborated remotely with partners across the country. When it was safe again, they reopened their office in 2020. Uptake on the offer to return was low among staff.

“We set up the infrastructure for people to be able to sign up to go into the office, but because of how our office is set up, there could only be one person in each room,” Ms. Eng recalls. “The final decision was made after doing several polls to understand what the staff needed, and data pointed to most of them wanting to do either hybrid or remote first, so we just took the jump and went fully remote in January 2022.”

The move wasn’t without its challenges, even for a team used to operating outside the confines of an office.

“In a remote world you have to throw your old assumptions out the window. There are communication issues, for example. Things can easily get lost in translation when you’re on camera. So, we often repeat things and make sure that active listening is happening, but that’s a thing that we’re still learning to navigate.”

Ms. Eng says the organization has benefitted from a wider talent pool since leaving their bricks and mortar office, and she feels better able to forge connections across the country than she did when the business had a home base in Toronto. Still, adding an office back into their operations is something the organization is prepared to consider in the future.

“Ultimately, we want to optimize for folks to do their best work under conditions that are right for them, so we’ll continue to respond to the needs we hear from our talent pipeline. Right now though, we have working parents, people recovering from the pandemic, and as a working parent myself who has so many obligations, I’m always angling for flexibility. I’m lucky that everyone I work with is in the same boat.”