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Adrian Forrow/The Globe and Mail

Erica Pimental, a doctoral candidate in accountancy at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, wanted to study how accountants and other professionals find meaning in their work. But, like many others, she found herself modifying her plan after the pandemic struck. By the time she started her project, working from home was standard for CPAs, and her focus had narrowed to how remote working was affecting professionals across the country.

At the end of March, Statistics Canada reported that 39% of Canadians worked from home, compared with 12% to 14% before the pandemic. And this transition will be permanent for many. Roughly 36% of chief executives say they will offer a full-time post-pandemic option to work from home, according to a recent study by YPO, a networking group.

Pimental, a chartered accountant herself, interviewed 30 senior managers and partners. A common topic with her interview subjects was that workplace culture is growing less formal, with children and pets guest starring on video calls and leisurewear replacing business suits. This might actually benefit corporate culture in the short term, she posited, by creating new ways for colleagues to bond. Snippets of real life allow for new connections, similar to the Monday morning update on a child’s soccer game. And as professionals adopted a more casual dress code, it also removed many of the visual cues used to convey rank or importance in the workplace. “If we’re just looking at what people say, not looking at how they’re projecting themselves,” she says. “I’m really wondering how that’s going to materialize itself in the long term.”

She says the loss of formality surprised her, given that her experience suggests self-presentation was always a key to success within the industry. “There’s this sense that we’re all at home together, and we’re all in this pandemic together,” she says.

But there were still subtle ways that corporate hierarchy asserted itself. If a partner wore a hoodie on a video call, it was fine because the client knew the individual had seniority “So they’re going to listen to whatever you say, however you present yourself,” she says. That same comfortable clothing might not have gone over as well for a junior team member meeting with a client. But recent experience offers some hope for a paradigm shift. “Do you do good work?” Pimental asks. “Then that’s what should be paid for. If you come to work in a clown suit, I only care about the quality of the work you produce. We can extend that idea and use the lack of physical presence of virtual work to allow people to come to work as who they are.”

This new level of relationship might actually make co-workers and supervisors more likely to see their colleagues as people with competing priorities, and encourage empathy over missing a deadline or a constantly shifting schedule. But don’t expect it to last forever, Pimental warns.

“All this research on remote work has to be bookended by the fact that this is in a very unique context,” she says. “A year from now, remote work is going to be experienced very differently than it was experienced over the past six months.”

Pimental says companies contemplating continued remote work need to consider the importance of human interaction and find ways to foster it remotely if it will benefit everyone. One interview subject who lives alone spoke about the loss of all the micro interactions he had in a typical workday, from chatting at Starbucks to brainstorming with co-workers in the shared kitchen.

“I think about all those spontaneous conversations that start at the water cooler. You learn something really neat about what someone else is working on, or see a project you could collaborate on,” she says. “That is valuable, not just for human connection, but from an organizational perspective.”