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Many Canadian employees are demanding greater workplace flexibility, but at the same time many employers are not prepared to meet that demand, signalling a potential wave of resignations as pandemic restrictions lift.

According to a recent survey of 800 senior managers conducted by Robert Half Canada, 55 per cent want their teams to work on-site full time as pandemic restrictions ease. Another Robert Half survey of employees, however, found that 53 per cent of remote workers would look for a job with more flexible work options should their company pursue a full-time return to the office. That proportion increases to 59 per cent among working parents and 68 per cent among millennials.

“That’s a big number,” says Koula Vasilopoulos, a senior district director for Robert Half Canada. She says it’s rare for a single workplace policy to cause more than half the work force to consider quitting. “You always saw a certain percentage of people who may not have liked or agreed with a policy, but they would work through it.”

Ms. Vasilopoulos says what seems like an extreme stance makes sense within the context of the pandemic and the widespread staffing challenges. Employees have had two years to reflect, while also enjoying the benefits of remote work, and many feel like there isn’t a good reason to return to how things were before. At the same time, she says this is one of the easiest times (if not the easiest) for employees to switch employers in their entire careers.

“The current labour market is certainly impacting the discussions being had about work flexibility,” says Toni Frana, a career services manager for remote job posting platform FlexJobs. “The current labour market and the Great Resignation have really given employees the opportunity to lean into flexible and remote options.”

According to a recent FlexJobs survey, 77 per cent of respondents listed remote work as the second most important factor in their job search, following compensation. Furthermore, 57 per cent of remote workers say they’ll look for a new role if they can’t work remotely moving forward.

“We are not the same people who went home to work in 2020,” says Colette Stallbaumer, the general manager of Microsoft 365 and the future of work for Microsoft. “This collective shared experience that we’ve had over the past two years has really left a lasting imprint, and one of the things we see out of that is this priority around flexibility, that’s now a non-negotiable for employees.”

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report – which gathered insights from more than 31,000 participants across 30 countries, including Canada – 53 per cent of workers globally, and half of Canadians, say they are more likely to prioritize their health and well-being over work compared to before the pandemic.

The study also found that 43 per cent of Canadians who are currently splitting their time between remote and in-office work are seeking to be fully remote within the next year. Furthermore, 15 per cent of Canadians and 18 per cent of respondents globally had quit their jobs in the previous 12 months, with many citing flexibility as a primary motivator.

“When we asked them why, pay wasn’t at the top of the list; it was actually near the bottom,” says Ms. Stallbaumer. “They cited things like personal well-being, mental health, work-life balance and flexibility, and we see that as one of the lasting trends out of this pandemic.”

One of the biggest contributors to the divide between employee demands and employer policy is a strong difference in perception about the productivity of remote workers. According to the Microsoft study, 46 per cent of Canadian business leaders fear productivity has been negatively affected by the shift to remote or hybrid work, slightly below the global average of 54 per cent. At the same time, 81 per cent of employees globally and 80 per cent of those in Canada say they are equally or more productive since switching to hybrid or remote work.

“This is the next part of the lived experience of hybrid work,” says Ms. Stallbaumer. “We have to move into this next phase with empathy for both sides; business leaders who want to see some sort of return to the office for some part of the time, and employees who say this experience has changed who I am, and how much I value flexibility and well-being.”

The Microsoft study also found that Canadian employers aren’t being as intentional about their hybrid work policies. Only about 20 per cent have worked with their teams to create a framework that defines when and why employees need to be in the office; well below the global average of 28 per cent.

“The organizations that understand that work is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and meet employees where they are in this moment, will fare better,” says Ms. Stallbaumer. “The organizations that embrace flexibility and prioritize employee well-being will be the ones that come out on top.”

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