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You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.

ROB: So your boss wants you to go back into the office. But after two years of remote work, you’re not sure you want to go.

ROMA: Maybe you’ve moved farther away and don’t want to commute. Or maybe you’ve got a taste of flexibility and you aren’t willing to give it up – even if it means finding a new job.

ROB: Today we’re talking about the cost of going back into the office. Whether you measure cost in time or money, going back to work can be pricey. And a lot of young people are making big moves to avoid the cost and keep their work-from-home lifestyle.

ROMA: Welcome to Season 5 of Stress Test, a personal finance podcast for Millennials and Gen Z.

ROB: I’m Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist at The Globe and Mail.

ROMA: And I’m Roma Luciw, personal finance editor.

ROB: So, Roma, when was the last time you went into the office?

ROMA: I went into the office about a year ago to clean out my desk. And that was it. I haven’t been in since and my working day consists of getting up, getting dressed, brushing my teeth, walking downstairs, making a wonderful coffee on my new amazing coffeemaker, shepherding the kids to school and then turning on my computer and starting to work. So I’m really enjoying working from home, there are some things I miss. What about you? Do you miss going into the office Rob?

ROB: I’m going to miss the office a little bit. I miss talking to the people there, you know, sharing story ideas and information. And I also miss the gym that was near the office, I was able to work out there on my lunch break. But beyond that, I do not miss the commuting. I hated commuting, I think I’m in the majority there. And I totally understand why a lot of people are deciding that this is super important to them, and they want to change work to accommodate that.

ROMA: I think for most people, it comes down to time and money. We have had a work culture that it seems a lot of people were dissatisfied with. And we haven’t had a shake up of this working set up that we have in many generations. And COVID presented that opportunity. The one thing we should note is that working from home is not for everyone. There’s about 40 per cent of Canadians, according to StatsCan data, that are able to work from home. Many people cannot, doctors, nurses, cashiers, drivers, factory workers. So when we’re talking about working from home, we are speaking to this very specific group of people that are able to do so.

ROB: You know, I want people to listen to this podcast and be motivated to go out there and fight for your work life balance. It’s a great opportunity. Right now employers are listening to employees like they haven’t in ages. You have leverage, take advantage.

ROB: When we did a call out for this episode, we heard from so many young people who made big moves during the pandemic because they decided flexibility was critical. There was no way they were going back to the old way of doing things.

ROMA: After the break, we hear from a 20 Something who’s looking for a new job. That’s because his employer is asking workers to be in the office two to three days a week.

ROMA: Meet our first guest, who isn’t flexible about his desire for flexibility.

MO: My name is Mo, I live in the Halton Region of Ontario. And I’m 26. I work as a program manager in the telecom industry.

ROMA: Before the pandemic, Mo’s job was flexible. He only went into the office when his manager was in town. But he’s since switched to a different business unit - one that’s asking people to come back to the office at least two or three days per week. He doesn’t want to go.

MO: So there’s two main reasons I don’t want to go back to work. They’re both related to cost, but the two reasons are time and money. To me, to be very honest with you at this stage, it’s more time than anything. I live further away from my office now than I did before the pandemic. And in terms of time, it would take me an hour and a half to go there and an hour and a half to come back during rush hour. And those three hours, I just really enjoyed having them. So I’m not really ready to give those up by just sitting in a car alone, just for the sake of being in the office.

ROMA: Mo really made the most of that extra time.

MO: Oh, my gosh. So three hours a day, especially in summer, was a huge plus to me. I love going out for walks. I love going out for bike rides. I love gardening. So everything that I wasn’t doing while driving, which is absolutely nothing. I was now being able to do on my time alone at home. I started doing Brazilian jiu jitsu, I started joining a Toastmasters chapter, I started reading a lot more, I started writing a lot more. There’s just so much that I can do with three hours a day. And I can’t imagine giving that up like it would cost my soul. That’s how I view it, really.

ROMA: Like Mo said, time is a huge reason, but so is money. And going back into the office will cost him lots more.

Mo: So there’s the increasing gas prices, that’s a major one. There’s also the cost of preparing food from home so that I can take it into the office. And there’s the cost of clothes that I need to buy to go into the office. I haven’t been in the office in like three or two to three years, so there’s definitely gonna be an initial investment there, and an ongoing investment to maintain appearances, that’s for sure. So in terms of gas, it’s costing me around $85, just to fill my tank, and I drive a small car. So I’d probably need to fill up at least twice a week if I were to go three times a week to the office. So that’s around $250, just for gas. And for clothes, I’m thinking it’s going to be around $200 every three months or so. So those costs add up. And I’m not really ready to go back to spending that much time and money on a job where I’d be able to do the same thing sitting at home, really. So I feel like the onus is on the managers and the executive team to propose the benefits of coming to work for us and make it a more welcoming environment.

ROMA: Mo isn’t willing to bend on working from home. So what’s he going to do about it?

Mo: So what I’m doing right now is searching for other opportunities that are either remote only, or that I know are very flexible when it comes to where you’re working from, as long as you’re getting the work done. And my plan after I get the offer, fingers crossed, is I’d go back and I’d negotiate. If the offer is something that I’m that I’m not completely happy with. But if it is something that I’m completely happy with, I fully justify quitting, just for the sake of not going back to the office.

ROMA: And he’s willing to sacrifice cash.

Mo: Yes, I would absolutely take a job for less money if it did not involve having to go into the office.

ROMA: So far his job search is going well. He’s got a few interviews lined up and he’s waiting to hear if he’ll get an offer.

Mo: So I’d say it’s good. There’s no shortage of people that are looking for talent. And I’ve been reading a lot about the great resignation. And I know there’s a lot of people that are quitting their jobs these days, which just leaves a bigger gap for those looking for new opportunities. And there’s a lot of people that are quitting to start other jobs, but there’s also some people that are waiting to do their own thing. So I actually just started learning how to cut hair during the pandemic, because first of all, I have more time on my hands. And second, it’s a way to build a pipeline towards, you know, not necessarily having to depend on one stream of income. That’s one thing I learned during this whole thing for sure.

ROMA: Mo knows he’s not the only one who won’t budge on flexibility.

MO: I know that this story I’m sharing now about looking for other opportunities because of being asked to go into the office isn’t one that I only have, it’s one that a lot of my colleagues have as well. And it’s one that they’re already having conversations with their executives about. So I think one of two things is going to happen. Either the organizations that are asking for these asks to go back into the office are going to adapt to the modern way of doing things and to a different approach to flexibility in the workplace. Or they’re just going to lose a lot of good talent to other organizations that are starting to adopt these these tactics, I guess.

ROMA: Mo is a great example of a young adult who isn’t willing to sacrifice flexibility. After the break, we’ll hear from a manager in her early 40s on why she made the decision to close her office for good.

[AD BREAK]

KAT: So my name is Kat and I live in Oakville, Ontario. I’m 42 years old. I have two young kids. My son is 12 and my daughter is eight. I’m a single mom.

ROB: Kat is the managing director of the Canadian office of a consulting company based in California. In the before times, there was zero flexibility in terms of where you worked.

KAT: When you’re in the consulting world and everything is virtual, we can get away with working from home, but our office policy was always everybody must come in. Right. We felt that people work better, especially when you’re starting out a new company, it’s easier to access staff and have meetings and discussions and turnaround things quickly if everybody’s in the same room. I think there was a bit of tension there. I think some people wanted that flexibility. But our policy was there is no work from home unless it’s needed or somebody’s sick, or you have a sick child or something.

ROB: That policy didn’t make things easy for employees - or for Kat.

KAT: Oh my gosh, I think I would always run in there like frantic. I’d sit in my office just to collect myself a few minutes, because you’ve got to understand, myself and a lot of my colleagues, you know, we either have young kids or other responsibilities. So by time you wake up in the morning, get the kids up and running out the door to school, then you’re getting yourself prepared for your meetings and dressed and running to work. So by the time you get to work, you’re already exhausted.

ROB: Exhausted, and spending a lot of cash.

Kat: There were so many different costs associated with it. Obviously the  immediate ones are gas, right, just the commute. I mean, I think the most expensive thing is my time. So my time that commute from here to Mississauga, or Toronto, wherever, an hour there, an hour back. And then of course, you have the car expenses, you have, you know, the mileage, the gas, you know, the lunches, the clothes. Right, as in when you’re working in a professional environment, always having to look nice. And so the cost of clothing was getting expensive. The daycare costs for my kids. So an after school program, which was very pricey, I think it was about $900 for two kids for two hours. And then the mental strain, right? The cost of my sanity, of just rushing to work and in rushing back and picking up the kids. So it was a lot.

ROB: But the lockdown in March 2020 forced the company to change its mindset. Suddenly, it had to find new ways to help employees function outside the office.

KAT: The first six months, we were forced to go into lockdown, right. After that, we realize everybody’s working so well, everybody’s so productive, that we didn’t really need to have an office environment. So we kept, you know, stretching it out, stretching it out. And then I realized, you know what, this is working for my team, and my team is happier this way. So I actually shut down the office permanently.

ROB: It was a major switch for Kat and her team, which doubled to 20 people during the pandemic. She consulted them before deciding to close the doors for good.

KAT: Absolutely, numerous conversations. I was actually very worried about their mental health. I’ve got a lot of young moms who were stuck at home, you know, and that could be in itself can be exhausting. I also have a lot of individuals who are here living in this city alone. So, no family, they’re new to the country, new to the culture. So for me, it was like making sure that they’re okay, so I had numerous conversations with them about, do you want to go back to the office? Do you need that social environment? Do you need that support? And I think I would say 90 per cent of them said they prefer working from home. I think there was one person who wanted to get away from his kids.

ROB: Not that there aren’t downsides to closing the office.

KAT: I miss the social aspect of it. I miss seeing adults on the regular. And honestly, we’ve tried to work around that as well. So now that the pandemic has been lifted, we kind of tried to make an attempt to meet as a team at least once a month, if not twice a month for social gathering, whether it’s dinners, going bowling, whatever that may be. So that’s kind of helped with that.

ROB: Kat’s paying for these social events using the money saved from closing the office - a large overhead cost. She says productivity has gone up because people don’t have to commute two hours a day. Some nights, she has to tell her team to stop working at 9 pm. She thinks employers who aren’t becoming more flexible are missing the boat.

KAT: Times are changing, everybody can be remote, there is technology out there. You know, there’s always going to be a few people that might take advantage of the situation. And if they think they’re not being productive, then those need to be dealt with. But I think, as a company as a whole, it would benefit them to kind of start looking at it through a different lens, right. Your employees are healthier, happier, better work life balance, and you access a pool of talent that you normally wouldn’t. I’m hiring people all across Canada whereas before I had to hire within the GTA.

ROB: She doesn’t expect the desire for flexibility to go away.

KAT: Huge, I think flexibility is going to be huge when it comes to retaining employees. Most people wouldn’t take a job if they weren’t given that flexibility. So again, you will lose people, eventually, they would want to have kids or you know, be with their family or deal with responsibilities, or they just don’t want to commute. So those are the people that are going to eventually start looking for other jobs if companies force them to go back. I think people will choose flexibility over money in most situations. I personally would. I think it would have to be a significant amount of money for me to give up that kind of flexibility. And I think that goes the same with my team.

ROMA: Flexibility clearly emerged as a major priority for workers during the pandemic. How this will affect the future of work is top of mind these days. I spoke with The Globe and Mail’s future of work reporter Vanmala Subramaniam about what’s changing in the workplace and what to expect going forward.

So let’s dive in. How has the pandemic changed Canadian expectations about where and how we work?

VANMALA: It’s a big question but I think the most significant change has come from a lot of people becoming very comfortable with the concept of remote working. And, you know, not necessarily wanting to go back into the office, even when conditions are safe to do so. I think that’s the biggest change we’ve seen in the pandemic in terms of the way office work is done.

ROMA: We know that young workers, white collar workers place a very high value on work life balance. What are some of the other things that young Canadians value when it comes to workplace and careers?

VANMALA: I think one of the interesting things about the pandemic and work is that there isn’t much of a difference between how younger people have started viewing their jobs and how older people are viewing their jobs. So yes, work life balance, definitely a thing that millennials and you know, younger Canadians are prioritizing. But there are exceptions to it based on class and race and you know, other kinds of things like that. For example, I was speaking to an HR professional at Sunlife, a big white collar employer in Toronto. And when Sunlife did an internal survey, they found that the people who are most likely to want to go back into the office were people in their 20s who lived in condos. And that’s, I mean, the obvious reason being that it’s a small space, if you live in a one bedroom condo, which is quite common for a lot of young people working in cities like Toronto or Vancouver, you might share that space with a roommate or a partner and working from home can be quite challenging.

ROMA: OK, let’s, Let’s dig into that because one of the biggest developments in the pandemic has been younger Canadians moving to small towns and rural areas. These people are making major lifestyle, real estate, financial decisions based on the ability to continue working remotely. So they more than anyone need a boss or a company that will let them come in two to three times a month. How likely are they to find that?

VANMALA: Very, very likely. It’s a good question, because I definitely thought that once Omicron died down and there was there were there was this kind of push this reopening and push towards going back into the office, I expected to see a lot of employers telling their workers, hey, it’s time to come back to the office. You know, remote work is done. But I in fact didn’t see that. There are very key examples. Some of the biggest banks in Canada, HSBC, they have said that permanent hybrid work is acceptable for them. And in fact, the HSBC example is interesting because they’ve redesigned the office spaces in Toronto and Vancouver to not facilitate full time return to the office. So even if every single worker wanted to come back, there wouldn’t be enough desks for them to sit at.

ROMA: In your reporting, are you hearing about companies offering workers incentives to encourage them to come back into the workplace?

VANMALA: Ya that’s a really interesting question. I think actually Roma, it’s the opposite. I think employers who are looking for talent, are offering employees the ability to be more flexible in the way they work in order to incentivize them into joining that company. The job vacancy rate in Canada is at one of the highest it’s been in a while. And that basically means that employees have a lot of opportunity to move jobs, right, because of more jobs versus fewer demand for jobs. So what that tells you is that kind of the pendulum is in favor of employees right now and they’re able to demand how they want to work. So what I’m noticing is that there are people who are quitting jobs, because these jobs are asking them to come back into the office maybe even two to three times a week. They’re not quitting because they’ve been asked to come back five times a week, that is almost unheard of. But I think there are a good proportion of people who just want to be remote, full time, and come in when it’s warranted. So when they have to meet someone face to face, when they have a meeting, when there’s a reason. Because I guess the justification is I’ve been doing my work as productively if not more productively in the last two years. Why do I have to go through this commute, spend money, disrupt my workflow in order to just go into a desk and do the same thing in a different location?

ROMA: This brings me to another thing that I’ve spent some time thinking about. If you’re someone who prioritizes working from home, and you’re trying to negotiate that with your employer, what are some good ways to do that in terms of positioning this as a win win for both of you, which it can be?

VANMALA: I think the biggest way to do it is to emphasize your own ability to do your job well via not being in the office. So it boils down to that for employers, I don’t think they are too fussed that employees are not in one place all at the same time, as long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. So I think that’s the main thing to be able to convince your employer that you can be as productive. The other thing to remember about this whole situation is that even getting one or two people back into the office right now doesn’t make a whole lot of difference when most people are not in the office, right? From the employee point of view, it’s almost like, well, why am I coming back when I don’t get the same things that I used to, which is banter with my friends. You know, being able to look over and see who my boss is talking to just pick up on cues, going for coffee, just those things are still not happening because you don’t have a mass number of people in the office right.

ROMA: And it’s funny when you mentioned going for coffee and talking with co-workers, it certainly was one of the main reasons that I really enjoyed going into the newsroom was to speak with my co-workers and have those conversations and have that connection. You’re learning, you’re making connections, you’re building all of these relationships. You need to be on your boss’s radar for things like promotions, for moving into other opportunities. And, you know, potentially for bonuses, does working from home hurt your chances?

VANMALA: This is a bit of a hot debate that’s going on in the world of future of work. So on the one hand, you have people who are kind of staunch, we have to work from the office advocates saying that, younger employees will lose the chance to network, develop mentors, gain experience by kind of observing their colleagues close up and being able to obviously, as you say, network with the bosses. But I think there’s this other school of thought that says, if no one else is doing it, you’re not really losing out.

ROMA: One of the things that has come up is that when it comes to younger workers, flexibility is very important. And they have in some of the surveys I’ve seen, rated it higher than money. Is there a sense that workers are sacrificing higher earnings for a more flexible lifestyle?

VANMALA: Yes, I think there’s some evidence that they’re doing that. From what I’m finding, if you are offered a job, where you have to come back into the office, say three to four times a week, and you’re getting a marginal increase in your salary. So say, 15 per cent increase. What I’m finding is workers are rejecting that and saying, I don’t need a 15 per cent increase, if it means that I have to go through the commute and come back into the office. That whole equation changes when you’re offered a massive increase in salary. But I would say we’re in a very interesting point in society, I think, where money is not the only incentive to take on employment. And I’ve never really seen this. I, because all the other factors were the same, right? Like everyone commuted to work, everyone was at the office. So money was the only variable. But I think in this case, you’re finding that people, as you mentioned, you know have made permanent life changes so they’ve moved from Toronto to Halifax, they’ve bought houses there. They’re not going to move for money because it’s just not as big a deal anymore.

ROMA: Let’s talk a bit about the specific costs of returning back to the office in the future months and years. There are some real ways that going back to the office is harder on the wallet. Can you run through some of those?

VANMALA: There are many surveys on this. One of the ones that I found quite interesting was Flex Jobs, a company that kind of advises other companies on more flexible ways of working. They found, for example, that, on average, in North American and North American cities, a commuter will spend between $2000 and $5000 a year on commuting expenses and travel for really just under 15 kilometres of commute, so not even a massive amount of commute. So this is a lot of money for a lot of people. So I’ll give you an example. I mean, I’m a millennial, myself and my friends are around my age, we’re all in our 30s. Most, I would say 80 to 90 per cent of my cohort, feels they’re absolutely not willing to spend those few hundred dollars a month anymore to go back into the office because they are just doing their work the same way. and that extends beyond just the cost of transport. It’s the cost of going downstairs and as you say, grabbing a coffee with someone, or instead of going into your fridge to grab a snack, you’re going downstairs or upstairs and you’re buying a muffin or a croissant as your snack. You know, some of my friends say that they’re generally healthier, working from home because they’re more organized, and they get to plan out the meals. Others just say, look, I noticed that when I’m out, as soon as I leave my house, I’m just taking out my credit card more. There’s just more incentive to spend. And I don’t really want to do that.

ROMA: So one big expense that I think we need to talk about, especially when we’re talking about younger workers. So older millennials, people in their 20s and especially in their 30s are workers with kids. If you’re a parent of a young child, and you are now being asked to come into the office that will require some kind of child or daycare. That’s huge. That is a game changer, because we’re talking about a massive increase in the amount of money that you have to spend. How is that going to change the dynamic for people coming into the office?

VANMALA: I think for the most part, childcare, caring for pets that you have, that’s a major consideration for people when they want to think about coming back into the office. Because, you can’t have a daycare take your kids for one or two days when those days are not consistent. So you end up in this all or nothing situation where either you just commit to daycare full time, or you commit to, you know, staying at home with your kid and just doing daycare half a day, half a day full time. So I don’t think that the childcare considerations are not as flexible as being able to do your job in a flexible way. And so I think in this situation, employers do know that childcare is winning out and that’s like a major factor, especially for women, working women.

ROMA: Okay, so when it comes to returning to work, there are still a lot of balls up in the air. Let’s fast forward five years, what will the office versus remote work situation look like then?

VANMALA: My guess on this, and it’s just a guess because I can’t predict the future. But from what I know, I think we’re going to just move into a permanent hybrid working situation where you would work half the time at home and half the time in the office. But that varies according to company. So one day or five days, you know, it depends. The reason why I think this will be the future five years from now is because employers are making permanent changes in their office layout for hybrid work and these changes are expensive. And I think they are probably hesitant to walk them back. So that’s how I see it going, I see it becoming a place more where you’re going in for a purpose and you’re there because you have a specific team meeting and there’s a necessity for you to go in and meet your colleagues.

ROMA: Hybrid and remote work are clearly more than a pandemic trend. We’re seeing major shifts in how office jobs are done. Rob, what do you see ahead of us?

ROB: Well, I think a lot of people are going to be doing a blended kind of thing. And that’s possible for me. I’m not really sure, but I think a lot of people are going to think I need to get some of the advantages of being in the office and talking to my coworkers and being you know in the office and being seen by my boss. With the flexibility of not commuting and having more time for family and less stress and aggravation from commuting. So I think the blended way is the way forward. And I think we all need to see if we can if it works for us, and if it works for our jobs, see if we can make it happen.

ROMA: Here are my takeaways. One, employees have never had this much power. If you want the flexibility of working from home, now is the time to ask. Make a case to your employer that you’ll be more productive without that daily commute and all of the distractions. Two. If you’re going back to the office, get ready to pay more for lunches, gas or transit, parking, clothes, all that stuff you used to spend money on in pre-COVID times. Three, if you have younger kids or a pet, start looking for an affordable way to find care for them if and when you are called back to work, even part time.

ROMA: Thank you for listening to Stress Test. This show was produced by Kyle Fulton, Emily Jackson and Zahra Khozema. Our executive producer is Kiran Rana. Thank you to Mo, Kat and Vanmala for joining us this week.

ROB: You can find Stress Test on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend.

ROB: Next up on Stress Test: Inflation is hitting all of us hard, but the pain is most agonizing at the gas pump. Millennials are the largest group of car buyers in Canada. Are rising gas prices enough to push them to electric vehicles, or is that still a luxury that most can’t afford?

ROMA: Until then, find us at the Globe and Mail dot com. Thanks for listening.