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Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) stand at a picket line outside Place du Portage in Gatineau, Que., on April 28.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Graham Lowe, Karen D. Hughes and Jim Stanford were co-investigators on the Shaping the Future of Work research project. They acknowledge financial support from the Future Skills Centre and survey research support from EKOS Canada.

The future of remote and home-based work was a key issue in the recent strike by federal public servants. Their union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, wasn’t demanding an unlimited right to work from home. But PSAC did want rules governing remote work to be negotiated and codified in the collective agreement.

The tentative agreement reached with the largest group of strikers contains important steps toward an ongoing work-from-home protocol. These include requiring that remote work requests be evaluated individually, not by group of employees, and the creation of joint employer-union committees in each department to oversee the future evolution of remote work practices.

Tentative deal reached for 120,000 PSAC workers; CRA strike continues. Here’s what you need to know

That this issue contributed to one of the biggest strikes in Canadian history is more proof that remote work is a hot topic in workplaces across the country. And given its size and profile, the strike will be a defining moment in the evolution of work-from-home practices. The tentative deal, by codifying specific practices in a labour contract, confirms that work-from-home arrangements will be an essential ingredient in workplace relations well into the future.

New remote work practices and technologies, hurriedly implemented during the pandemic, proved broadly successful. Most remote workers now strongly prefer to keep doing it. Employers are less certain: Some support continued remote work, but many others want staff back in traditional workplaces, and this has sparked tension in many organizations.

We are part of a research team that collected original survey data on remote and home-based work last autumn from 5,800 respondents across Canada. The results shed light on why people who worked from home during the pandemic want to continue doing so.

By late 2022, 40 per cent of employees were still working mostly from home. Another 25 per cent had worked remotely at some time during the pandemic. Remote work was dominant in dozens of occupations, in both the private and public sectors, including professional, scientific, business, management, educational and government service roles. An exception was health care, with even professional and managerial staff operating from traditional workplaces for the most part.

Home-based workers in our survey overwhelmingly prefer this arrangement: 40 per cent want to work from home all of the time, and another 56 per cent most or some of the time. Just 4 per cent of remote workers prefer returning to regular workplaces full-time.

Motivations for remote work are compelling. Avoiding commuting tops the list (94 per cent of home-based workers see this as a major benefit), but other perceived benefits include less stress and improved well-being and safety.

Indeed, across a wide range of job-quality indicators, home-based workers report significantly better well-being. We surveyed 14 different indicators of employee well-being, and remote workers scored higher on every one of them, including being treated respectfully, independence, job security and ability to balance work and family. Seventy per cent of home-based workers expressed overall satisfaction with their jobs, compared with 57 per cent of non-home-based workers.

In addition to documenting strong support for remote-work arrangements, our research also challenged common myths about home-based work. Only a small minority of home-based workers – 13 per cent – said they faced too many distractions. And a large majority were not worried about their careers being undermined by a lack of visibility at work or reduced training and mentoring opportunities.

In sum, for those who could participate, Canada’s great experiment in home-based work was a resounding success. Of course, this highlights a fundamental inequity: Employers, regulators and unions must do better to improve job satisfaction, safety and security for those who cannot work from home. Meanwhile, home-based workers are determined to maintain this new practice.

On that score, our results highlight the critical importance of meaningful consultation and negotiation regarding future remote-work arrangements. Only half of home-based workers had been consulted by their employers about returning to traditional workplaces. And less than 40 per cent were satisfied with their input into those discussions.

The benefits of such consultation are shared with employers, through enhanced productivity, loyalty and retention. Most notably, home workers who had input to return-to-work plans were much less likely to look for another job – a positive outcome for employers at a time of widespread staffing shortages.

No one knows how remote work will evolve. But clearly it’s here to stay. Discussing and negotiating that evolution, as PSAC and the federal government just did, can benefit both workers and employers.

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