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Since the start of the pandemic, many Canadians have gotten accustomed to working remotely and on a more flexible schedule. As we anticipate an eventual end to the crisis, however, some may be disappointed by the lack of flexibility they are afforded moving forward.

While there are many Canadians who are eagerly anticipating a return to the office full time, studies suggest there are nearly as many who now prefer working remotely or on non-traditional hours.

According to a study by employer services provider ADP Canada, 45 per cent of working Canadians would prefer working remotely at least three days per week, and more than a quarter would prefer to work hours other than the traditional nine-to-five. A recent study by recruitment agency Robert Half Canada, however, found that 48 per cent of Canadian employers do not intend to continue their flexible working policies once the pandemic is over.

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“There will be some cases where there’s a disconnect between what the expectation and the reality look like,” says Deborah Bottineau, the district director of Robert Half Eastern Canada. “People have settled into a certain way of balancing their home life and their work life responsibilities, so I do think there will be an adjustment on the re-entry, especially if it’s not a gradual or a hybrid model.”

As a result of that disconnect Ms. Bottineau warns there could be a period of wide-scale transition in the job market following the pandemic, as workers seek out career opportunities that align with their new lifestyle preferences. “This period of time has reset some expectations for employees and what they want for themselves, so I do think it could create an appetite for transition,” she says.

Ms. Bottineau explains that many Canadian employers are seeking to adopt a hybrid arrangement that allows employees to work remotely for part of the week. The solution is a compromise between a full return to business as usual and maintaining the current status quo, but she warns there is still a large segment of the workforce that would prefer working remotely full time.

“Some people have settled in and will say they don’t ever want to go back to the nine-to-five and the commute,” she says. “If there are employees who have settled into a fully remote lifestyle today, who are working for employers who land on something more hybrid, that could ultimately create a disconnect.”

According to the ADP study, the preference for remote work is much higher among younger employees; 61 per cent of those under 34 prefer working remotely at least three days a week, compared with 43 per cent of those aged 35 and older.

“The younger generation of workers has higher expectations,” says Heather Haslam, the vice-president of marketing for ADP Canada. “We know there’s more of a preference for that flexibility by younger workers, and if you’re trying to get top talent, that could be a competitive differentiator.”

The risk of sudden turnover following the pandemic might also be greater for smaller organizations that aren’t able to afford the tools, technologies and HR resources that can facilitate more flexible work arrangements.

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“The employers that are large scale and have the resources — who have had this in the back of their minds or have been doing this already — clearly they are prepared,” says Tony Ariganello, the chief executive officer of Chartered Professional in Human Resources (CPHR) Canada. “Small and medium-sized businesses make up 98 per cent of the businesses in Canada, and I would struggle to say they are [ready], simply because this happened so quick, and there’s no road map.”

According to a study by Oxford Economics, the Society for Human Resource Management and SAP SuccessFactors, a global provider of software for HR departments, 37 per cent of business leaders say establishing a culture that supports remote work will be a challenge. The study also found that only 37 per cent intend to invest in more remote-collaboration tools.

“It’s clear that employee expectations have changed,” says Kevin Spencer, the Canada country manager for SAP SuccessFactors. “A lot of employees now feel that this can work, so I think it is something that will widen the scope in the war for talent to include working in a flexible manner.”

Mr. Spencer believes now is the time for employers to collect feedback from staff and respond to those evolving expectations.

“It’s more important than ever to listen to the employees and their feedback, what’s working and what’s not working, and what they’d like to see changed,” he says. “The next six months will be about establishing new norms, and that should be a collaborative process between employers and employees, and that requires [a greater] level of dialogue.”

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