COMMENTARY: Remote work isn’t a trend. It’s a fundamental shift in Canada’s work culture

Click to play video: 'The Future of Work: Work from home and remote working'
The Future of Work: Work from home and remote working
WATCH: SFU professor Terri Griffith explains the impact more than a year of employees working from home may have on business and office culture long term – Apr 12, 2021

As Canada prepares to reopen post-pandemic, it seems returning to the office is an anxiety-inducing prospect for many Canadians.

Recent surveys suggest not only that more than half feel stressed about going back to “normal,” but the majority also want remote work options after COVID-19.

Despite this consensus among Canadian workers, I still see head-scratching articles and online debates about whether companies should continue allowing employees to work from home.

Case in point: A luxury real estate company pitched me an idea for this column about how “physical offices will be a competitive advantage for businesses post-pandemic.”

But for me, the answer is a no-brainer. Of course people should be able to work remotely.

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This shouldn’t be a debate. Rather, working from home is an organic and inevitable evolution of #worklife that younger generations are especially embracing.

A September 2020 study by human resources management provider ADP Canada suggests 61 per cent of Canadian workers aged 18 to 34 prefer to work remotely at least three days a week, compared to 43 per cent of workers over 35.

By the time the pandemic forced everyone to adopt remote work last March, I’d been working out of my Toronto home for American and Canadian companies for nearly 10 years on and off, so I’d long been acclimated to COVID-era working environments.

Indeed, I’ve been preaching the benefits of remote work since 2012, when I got my first full-time, post-internship job at Mashable, a global media outlet that specializes in tech, digital culture and entertainment journalism.

I was initially hired as the overnight/weekend editor, so during my first six months to a year there, my hours were a merciless 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. That meant a lot of autonomy and long stretches working alone, but also a lot of responsibility for a relatively fresh grad.

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Fortunately, as a tech-savvy company, Mashable already had a distributed workforce across the U.S. and Europe by the time I joined, so it was tricked out with the latest video-conferencing and messaging-platform technology to ensure headquarters in New York City could communicate clearly with remote offices.

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Combined with semi-regular in-person visits to NYC, remote work felt pretty seamless.

Click to play video: 'How working from home is changing the behavioural landscape since the onset of COVID-19'
How working from home is changing the behavioural landscape since the onset of COVID-19

Sure, there were drawbacks. As an early 20-something, I was eager to socialize and befriend my colleagues, but working from home made that difficult — a sentiment shared by today’s early-career gen Zs who feel more isolated and disengaged than older generations while working from home, according to a U.S.-based report from Microsoft .

But now, as a 34-year-old consultant who speaks with clients worldwide, I can’t ever imagine going back to the office full-time. Hybrid, maybe, but definitely not five days a week.

For gen Zs and millennials, there are far more pros than cons to remote working conditions because they align with our priorities and values.

Working from home provides more flexibility in our daily schedules, which is great for our mental health, that all-important quality for folks my age. If we want to see our therapist, we can book a lunchtime appointment. If we have to renew our health card in-person, we can do that before the government office closes. If we’re not feeling 100 per cent one day and don’t want to face our colleagues, we can turn off our cameras.

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Remote work also reduces the opportunities for bosses to micromanage us. Particularly with open-office layouts — which remain stubbornly popular despite the fact that they’re more likely to increase anxiety than collaboration — it’s hard not to feel like colleagues are looking over your shoulder.

That’s especially the case when you’re a young and insecure newbie entering the workforce for the first time. Getting a few days a week to work at home will help younger Canadians get their bearings, while still enabling them to build their professional confidence and improve their social skills through office interactions.

Beyond mental health considerations ,remote work is more cost effective as people won’t have to spend money on commuting, professional attire and eating out. Given that 74 per cent of gen Z and 60 per cent of millennial respondents to a recent survey from financial services company Sun Life reported that COVID-19 has made saving for the future difficult due to a loss of income or employment, remote work is one way to make up for those losses.

The health of our planet, in addition to the financial health of young Canadians, is another benefit that aligns with our values . After the oil and gas sector, transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada , which means cutting down on commutes is another pro for remote work.

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Rather than framing this as a work-from-home versus work-at-the-office debate, we should see remote work as the beginning of a fundamental shift in how Canadians are managing their professional lives. If we can still maintain our productivity, while also protecting our mental health and living our values, then do we really need to consider arguments against working from home? I think not.

Anita Li is a media strategist and consultant with a decade of experience as a multi-platform journalist at outlets across North America. She is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and Centennial College. She is the co-founder of Canadian Journalists of Colour, a rapidly growing network of BIPOC media-makers in Canada, as well as a member of the 2020-21 Online News Association board of directors. To keep up with Anita Li, subscribe to The Other Wave, her newsletter about challenging the status quo in journalism.

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