It had long been predicted that digital technology would change the way people do their jobs, but the discussion was largely theoretical when it came to allowing employees to work remotely, instead of from the managed environment of an office.
The COVID-19 pandemic has blown up any lingering psychological barriers to this idea. The future arrived with a thud in 2020.
There is, in fact, evidence that pretty much every Canadian who can work from home has done so during the pandemic.
Statistics Canada estimates that 38.9 per cent of Canadian workers have jobs that can plausibly be done with just a telephone, a computer and an internet connection. In the last week of March, almost exactly that number of Canadians – 39.1 per cent – were teleworking.
In all, an additional 4.7 million Canadians worked from home the last week of March. This could have a huge impact on Canadian society.
Had a pandemic of this scale occurred in 1990, it would be a different story. But it happened in 2020, when the necessary technology was ready to answer the call.
Companies that may have been reluctant to release employees from direct, in-person managerial oversight have learned that it’s possible to let people work from home and still communicate with them effectively.
Employees themselves have discovered the advantages of skipping their daily commute, and of being able to balance their work-related tasks and deadlines with any domestic obligations they might have, such as raising children.
An Angus Reid online survey of 1,510 Canadian adults in June found that only 13 per cent of those who had been forced to work from home by the pandemic thought that their productivity had gone down.
As well, only 15 per cent thought their mental health had suffered. And fully two-thirds of those surveyed said they expected to continue working from home to some degree after the pandemic is over.
This has huge implications. No one thinks the traditional office job is going to disappear, or that managers and employees can always work effectively together as a team if they never see each other.
But there is good reason to believe that offices may be smaller in the future, resulting in lower business costs. Some experts speculate that offices will to some degree become social hubs for teleworking employees who want to catch up with colleagues and bosses, as well as being a place to work one or two days a week.
For society as a whole, that could mean less traffic on crowded streets, and less car pollution. (It could also mean more car traffic – if people avoid public transit.) For teleworking employees, the ability to be home all day, and to raise children in affordable homes outside of expensive city centres, could well contribute to less stress and more happiness.
These beneficial scenarios are uncertain – and in any case, they mostly apply to a minority of Canadian workers, many of whom are well educated, well paid professionals in dual-income homes. The other 61.1 per cent, who work in jobs that Statscan says can’t be done remotely, aren’t so lucky.
Some are doctors, nurses and tradespeople. But many are minimum-wage earners in the service sector. They have either lost their jobs in the pandemic, or have been obliged to venture into the public and put themselves in the crosshairs of the coronavirus to keep bringing in a salary.
Plus, a significant number of the people who were teleworking before the pandemic struck were contract workers or self-employed people. They have been hard hit by the economic slowdown, because they don’t have the benefits and protections of full-time employment.
The federal government created the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit to help the jobless through the summer lockdown, a necessary and correct move. And it is changing the rules of Employment Insurance to make it easier for gig workers and others to qualify for payments this fall.
But one day, hopefully soon, Canada will be back at full employment. The pandemic has shown that permanent reforms are needed to improve the living standards of the majority of Canadians who have to leave the house every working day. Without a hard look at ways to raise their incomes and enhance their job security, the pandemic risks being a cause of greater inequality.
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