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Companies like Shaw that have unionized employees are more restricted in how they can make changes because of their collective agreements.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Shaw Communications Inc. has laid off field technicians in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to customers installing their own equipment – a kind of downsizing that employment experts expect to increase.

Shaw has been moving toward a self-service model, where customers are sent equipment such as modems and personal video recorders along with instructions on how to install them, for the past two years. With the global health crisis making people wary of allowing technicians into their homes, the company has sped up that shift and deemed roughly 100 of its field technician positions across British Columbia’s Lower Mainland redundant.

“As health and physical restrictions are lifted … we do not envision returning to our pre-pandemic model due to our new ways of interacting with customers and our process improvements,” Shaw spokesperson Chethan Lakshman said in an e-mail.

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The move illustrates what experts say could become a growing trend across numerous industries, as the pandemic has prompted consumers to embrace self-serve options and companies to find ways to get by with fewer staff.

“We will absolutely see longer-term fallout, not from COVID per se, but from the realization that certain things don’t have to be done in the cumbersome ways that we’re accustomed to doing them," said Jennifer Mathers McHenry, a Toronto-based employment lawyer.

There’s no legal reason why companies can’t use insights gleaned during the pandemic to make their operations leaner as long as they don’t run afoul of labour laws, Ms. Mathers McHenry said. However, such changes could harm companies’ reputations, she noted.

“There could be a [public relations] fallout for some companies if it’s perceived by the public that they’re taking advantage of the crisis in order to oust their employees. That doesn’t necessarily play well in a lot of sectors," Ms. Mathers McHenry of Mathers McHenry & Co. said.

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And companies like Shaw that have unionized employees are more restricted in how they can make those changes because of their collective agreements says Erin Kuzz, an employment lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz LLP.

In fact, United Steelworkers Local 1944, a union representing roughly 450 Shaw technicians, is grieving the layoffs. In a letter sent to its members, the union alleges that the company is “intentionally mischaracterizing” the job cuts as stemming from automation, instead of a shortage of work, to retain its contractors and deprive unionized employees of their right to be recalled to work.

“While the union does acknowledge that there are times when a work force reduction is appropriate, we unequivocally denounce a profitable organization doing so during a global pandemic when there is still work for our members to do during this period,” the union said in a notice posted on its website.

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The cuts, which represent roughly 8 per cent of Shaw’s technician work force, have been driven by changing customer preferences and the fact that very few unionized technicians accepted early retirement packages, Mr. Lakshman said. Field technicians are available to troubleshoot self-installations using virtual tools, he added.

Other telecom providers – including Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc’s Bell Canada – have also moved to self-service models to keep their customers and employees safe, and some industry observers predict the change will have a lasting impact on consumer preferences. Sending out a technician in a truck is not only costly for the telecom provider but also inconvenient for the customer, said Jason Moore, chief executive of RouteThis, an Ontario-based software company that enables telecom providers to perform installations and repairs remotely.

“The customer has to sit at home for that four-hour window and wait for the technician to show up. People don’t actually enjoy doing that,” Mr. Moore said.

During a conference call to discuss Rogers’s first-quarter results, the company’s chief financial officer Tony Staffieri said the shift to self-installations has the potential to reduce costs in the future.

“Today we’re on a model that we would describe as assisted self-install, where the tech is close by and helps the customer inside. That model will evolve over time, over the longer term to something that is a complete self-install,” Mr. Staffieri said.

Bell and Telus also said they are looking to continue offering options such as self service and virtual support in the future.

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