Scores of Canadians have ditched the city. Will the office claim them back?

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Sophie Chen, 36, and her husband had been toying with the idea of moving to the suburbs for years. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit that they finally did it.

Pregnant with her second child and eager to find a larger home, Chen, a real estate agent, was initially hesitant to leave the couple’s Toronto residence as the housing market froze in March amid Ontario’s COVID-19 lockdown.

But when Chen, who previously worked as a financial analyst, started analyzing market data from April and May, she says she realized activity was quickly picking up pace.

“We have to move now,” she thought.

Before the lockdown, the real estate market had been off to a roaring start in January and February, Chen says, recalling a condo in Scarborough, just east of Toronto, that attracted around 20 bids from buyers.

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Chen says she was worried home prices would spike again as COVID-19 restrictions loosened and more families like hers would feel the need to leave the city in search for more bedrooms and backyard space.

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In May, Chen and her husband bought a home in Aurora, a 50-km drive north of Toronto, upgrading from their small three-bedroom home in the city to a 4,500-square-foot house with four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a finished, walk-out basement.

In the following months, scores of urban dwellers who’d been stuck at home working from the kitchen table, their kids’ bedrooms or impossibly small condo dens made a similarly quick decision to flee the big city and relocate to small towns, the country or, in some cases, a different province.

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Statistics Canada data shows that between the beginning of July 2019 and the start of July 2020, a period that includes the early months of the COVID-19 emergency, Toronto saw 50,375 more people leaving the city for other areas of Ontario than making the opposite move.

Montreal experienced a similar net outflow of 24,880 people, although both cities still saw overall population growth thanks to international immigration. And the data suggests some homebuyers looking to stretch their dollar went as far as the Maritimes, with Halifax, for example, seeing a net inflow of 1,584 people from other provinces.

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But anecdotal evidence shows not everyone who staged a move during the pandemic checked in with their boss before packing up. That’s a problem employers and HR professionals are now grappling with.

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Employers are laying out their post-pandemic work-arrangement plans, and for most companies, it’s not going to be 100-per cent remote work, says Allison Venditti, a career coach and HR expert and founder of CareerLove in Toronto.

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The mismatch between employees’ hopes and employers’ expectations is “the biggest issue that we’re seeing right now,” says Julie Labrie, president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions, a bilingual recruitment staffing firm.

“Many employers of workers currently doing their jobs solely from their homes expect them to go back into the office full time after the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. Not two days a week. Not three days a week. Full time,” CIBC economists Benjamin Tal and Royce Mendes wrote in a recent report citing Statistics Canada data.

While some workers moved beyond commuting distance in an act of faith that current work-from-home arrangements would last, employers have a right to demand that employees go back to the office once conditions allow, both Venditti and Labrie say.

If you haven’t discussed your relocation with your employer yet, you should get that conversation started as soon as possible, says Venditti and Labrie say.

It’s helpful to articulate why you thought the move was necessary, Venditti says. For example, if you wanted to be closer to aging parents, your employer may view some kind of permanent remote work arrangement as a form of family accommodation, she adds.

Even if you got the green light from your employer, if you’re going to be remote for the long term, you’ll have to put in an extra effort to stay connected with your manager and colleagues, Venditti says.

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Employers with whom Venditti has been consulting have been establishing regular team meetings, one-on-one Zoom calls and professional virtual coffee dates to ensure remote workers stay connected to both their own departments and parts of the company they don’t normally interact with, Venditti says.

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But maintaining that connection is a two-way effort, Venditti says.

If you’re working from home and the rest of the office isn’t, you’re going to miss Friday drinks and the company’s Christmas party. To continue to grow your career, it becomes very important to find ways to maintain and expand your professional network remotely — whether it’s via phone-call check-ins or social media — both within your organization and your industry, Venditti says.

Freelancers who moved to smaller communities will also need to put in more legwork to maintain and grow their networks remotely, Venditti says. She recommends that her clients who work independently devote 15 per cent of their time to connecting with former and current clients to make sure they remain top-of-mind for them.

“Even if you’re living on a farm, you need to set up those Zoom phone calls and actually make a really concerted effort,” Venditti says.

And while the pandemic has created many more remote or partially remote job opportunities, moving away from a big city may come with an earnings penalty in many industries, according to Venditti.

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For one, job candidates based in smaller or remote communities may have fewer opportunities to choose from. Labrie says her firm is now frequently dealing with job-seekers who will turn down jobs simply because they don’t allow for remote work.

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But even when employers allow full-time work-from-home, they may adjust salaries down for workers based in lower-cost locations, Venditti says. A broad survey of North American companies by Willis Towers Watson, for example, found that 20 per cent of employers are taking into consideration an employee’s geographic locations when setting pay levels.

If you’re contemplating ditching the city, Venditti recommends discussing the possible financial pros and cons with a financial planner.

Perhaps selling your downtown home and buying a cottage will leave you mortgage-free and able to work part-time or go freelance and pursue a passion project, Venditti says. But maybe you’ll also lose your health benefits and pension, she adds. You should look at the whole picture before making a decision, she says.

Three employers for whom Venditti consults have made financial planners available to employees during the pandemic, she says.

Chen, for her part, isn’t worried about her family’s post-pandemic work arrangements. Her husband’s job in marketing is tied to an office in downtown Toronto, but he will still be able to commute a few days a week when he’s back from parental leave after the birth of the couple’s second child.

And Chen said she decided to choose to her new Aurora neighborhood in part because she believes the local housing market has strong appreciation potential, which will benefit both her family’s net worth and her real estate business.

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Plus, she notes, with so many bedrooms in her new home, “I don’t have to rent an office anymore.”

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