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Pedestrians walk along Front Street, in Toronto, on March 12, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Permanent work-from-home arrangements may not be beneficial for companies over the long haul, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce chief executive Victor Dodig says, and could create division between front-line employees who have to come to work, and others who are given a choice.

During an annual public policy conference on Tuesday, Mr. Dodig said most company work “still needs to be done in collaboration,” and includes some level of interaction among people to deliver services or products, particularly for businesses that make “hard goods,” but also those that make “soft goods.”

“Right now, you see a view emerging that you can do everything from home. But you can’t build a company, and a company culture that’s cohesive, just working from home,” Mr. Dodig told an online audience during the Public Policy Forum Growth Summit.

Like many Canadian companies, CIBC repeatedly pushed back plans for employees to return to corporate offices after daily COVID-19 case counts surged across the country. The bank has adopted a hybrid work arrangement in which some employees work from home while others continue to work face to face with clients.

But having a long-term hybrid arrangement can also create a division among some workers – a divide that Mr. Dodig said he has been aware of since Day 1 of the pandemic.

“That is something that we need to recognize as we go forward and make sure that we don’t create two classes of citizens – those who always have to be on the front lines and those who get a choice,” he said.

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About 40 per cent of the bank’s work force – more than 18,000 employees – are classified as essential workers and therefore have not been allowed to work from home during the past 18 months.

“The pharmacy workers, the hospital workers, the grocery store workers, the people collecting our garbage, they always had to be on the front lines – as well as our banking employees who had to be in our banking centres and working in our vaults and making sure the bank moves forward each and every day,” Mr. Dodig said. “So, their lives haven’t changed.”

Unvaccinated children and public transit continue to be areas of “trepidation” for front-line workers and those yet to return to offices, he added.

“But it’s all about getting used to things again and doing things in a safe fashion.”

There are still a number of factors to monitor as the pandemic eases, he said, including the end of government benefits and the role of immigration in the labour market.

“Many immigrants that come to our country played a role in the essential service sector broadly defined and we’ll need people like that going forward,” Mr. Dodig said. ”If our economy grows, we’re going to need the skilled labour to attract the best and the brightest to Canada.”

Last month, enhanced unemployment benefits for millions of Americans ended after almost 18 months, and the Canadian Recovery Benefit is set to close later this month.

“In Canada, you still have a bridge to the future. And the government announced a further bridge for those industries that have been most impacted, which I think is absolutely the right thing to do,” Mr. Dodig added.

“But in the end, we need to get back to some sort of normal where it’s not a government lifeline that’s driving the economy going forward. I think what happens is, in six- to 12-months time, you’ll start to see the world normalize again because a lot of it’s been thrown into disarray because of the pandemic.”

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