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While major employers across North America have spent much of the past year trying to persuade their employees to return to the office more often, the global manufacturing giant 3M Co. is doing just the opposite.

The company is making its fully remote-work policy a permanent feature of employment, specifically because it will allow 3M to access a broader global pool of talent, not confined by geographical boundaries.

“We realized over the pandemic that remote work was an absolutely critical part of being able to meet our hiring needs for knowledge workers,” said Penny Wise, president and managing director of 3M Canada. “So we’re embracing that. It is our comparative advantage.”

The push to get workers back to the office has been gearing up since last summer, when most countries emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns. Employers have feared that continuing remote work would further erode company culture and lead to diminished productivity over time.

Many companies are also locked into long-term real estate leases and need to justify the use of their office space. Indeed, data has pointed toward a sharp decline in the proportion of North American workers who work fully remotely, and a corresponding surge in the number of people who participate in hybrid work.

But for 3M, none of the conventional justifications for having employees back in the office outweigh the desire to recruit the best talent – even if that means allowing prospective Canadian recruits to work from a different province or country.

The company, which has roughly 90,000 employees worldwide and 1,800 in Canada, had been experimenting with flexible work even before the pandemic, allowing employees in certain departments and divisions to work in a hybrid fashion. When the pandemic hit, most of its white-collar workers began working remotely full-time, and 3M has allowed them to maintain that setup indefinitely.

Approximately 70 per cent of the company’s global work force works mostly remotely. In Canada, 700 employees work remotely, and 1,100 are on site. Employees can choose to come into the office if they want, as many times a week as they feel comfortable.

According to Ms. Wise, maintaining remote work has helped 3M Canada recruit higher quality workers from different provinces who wouldn’t have necessarily been willing to relocate to the company’s headquarters in London, Ont. “We have marketers or sales people who are based in other parts of the country, say Vancouver, working with our Toronto and London teams. We would have never considered hiring them prepandemic.”

The remote work revolution that never took off

A bulk of the white-collar work force at 3M – which manufactures building materials, medical products and home-cleaning supplies – are scientists and engineers. “We need workers with a STEM background, and continuing to be remote when we recruit helps us broaden the pool of candidates,” Ms. Wise said.

In their desire to get workers back into the office, some employers have lost talent. In April, veteran CBC TV journalist Gillian Findlay left the public broadcaster because she was not allowed to work from Halifax, where she had been working throughout the pandemic as host of the Toronto-based investigative show The Fifth Estate. A discussion about remote work, according to Ms. Findlay in a series of tweets, became a disagreement about equal treatment, given that certain CBC employees were allowed to keep working from locations where their jobs were not based.

During a recent dispute over wages and remote work, Crystal Warner, president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union told The Globe and Mail that one of the biggest pandemic-era problems in recruitment for federal government jobs is the employer’s inflexibility over location of work.

There is a shortage of workers who process immigration and employment insurance claims, Ms. Warner said at the time, and there are people who are willing to do those jobs that can be done remotely, but they are not willing to relocate to more expensive cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa.

A survey conducted this month by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a federal employees’ union, found that more than one-third of public servants are so unhappy with the government’s hybrid work model, which compels them to be in the office at least twice a week, that they are considering leaving their jobs altogether. For those under 30, almost 50 per cent would consider finding new jobs that give them additional flexibility.

Ms. Wise believes that many employers felt more comfortable returning to the prepandemic norms of working because it was familiar to them. “It is not easy to design a work force that can function well on fully remote work. You have to really think about how you are going to engage with employees, and how you are going to maintain your company’s culture,” she said.

“But the nature of work has evolved and to a large extent, we as employers need to evolve with it to attract the best talent into our organization.”

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