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Canadians favour hybrid work amid COVID-19. Can employers force them back?

Click to play video: 'Why many Canadians prefer a hybrid work model' Why many Canadians prefer a hybrid work model
WATCH: Employers embracing hybrid model as workers go back to the office – Aug 7, 2021

After more than two years of working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadians are gradually returning to the office as public health measures and restrictions are being eased.

While seeing colleagues in person may come as a welcome change for those tired of Zoom meetings and being stuck at home during lockdowns, many are not so keen to leave the comfort and flexibility of remote work.

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According to a new survey by Amazon Business, 43 per cent of Canadian workers said they would likely look for a new job if they are mandated to work from the office on a full-time basis. In that same vein, 55 per cent said they would be less likely to accept a new job if they were required to work full-time from the office.

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In fact, only 12 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of physically going into work full-time.

Working remotely (30 per cent) and splitting time between office and home (27 per cent) are preferred scenarios, the survey findings showed.

The online poll was conducted in December and February and included almost 1,600 Canadians who transitioned to remote work at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hybrid model

Ottawa resident Greg Quirk has been working from home for the past two years.

Quirk, who joined Kinaxis as a product marketing manager in January and worked remotely at his previous job as well, went into the office for the first time earlier this month.

Read more: Hybrid model being embraced as GTA workers return to the office

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In a previous interview, he told Global News that the transition to in-person work was “a little bit like going back to kindergarten” as he familiarized himself with a new routine, workplace and coworkers.

“You really get that opportunity to see people in real life again, so you can have some of those conversations that I couldn’t have otherwise,” Quirk said.

Being fully vaccinated along with everyone else in the office as well as having the daily COVID-19 check-ins have alleviated his concerns about catching the virus, he said.

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Why many Canadians prefer a hybrid work model – Aug 7, 2021

Many companies in Canada are moving toward a hybrid model which is becoming increasingly popular.

This week, CIBC employees who had been working remotely returned to the office on a hybrid basis.

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Read more: Employers revamp hiring plans to meet talent crunch, demand for hybrid work

“Our hybrid model will allow our team to benefit from the flexibility and productivity that can be achieved from working remotely, while blending that with the benefits of in-person work with colleagues to further build culture and collaboration,” said Sandy Sharman, Group Head of People, Culture and Brand at CIBC, in an emailed statement to Global News.

The National Bank of Canada will also implement a hybrid work model more completely starting late April and May with a flexible formula that can be adapted in each team based on the needs of employees, clients and partners, said Jean-François Cadieux, senior manager of Public Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility at NBC.

Meanwhile, Thomson Reuters Corporation’s return-to-office date in Toronto that also involves a hybrid setup is scheduled for April 4.

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A survey by HubSpot conducted in December showed that 50 per cent of Canadians who were splitting time between office and remote work felt their team was working effectively in a hybrid environment.

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However, 31 per cent of survey respondents from other countries as well as Canada cited relationship-building as a barrier, while four in 10 said differences in the in-office and remote employee experience were an obstacle to success.

Quirk said he will likely adopt a hybrid working style that lets him get facetime with coworkers a few days a week, while also giving him opportunities to stay focused while working from home, with the added benefit of being there to welcome his kids back from school.

What employers can and cannot do

Mandates in the workplace particularly around COVID-19 vaccines have become a contentious issue for many Canadians during the pandemic.

Generally, employers can require their workers to come to the office, legal experts say.

Read more: Workplaces are slowly reopening, but can you refuse to go back?

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“It is ultimately, for the most part, the employer’s decision,” said Alex Lucifero, employment lawyer and managing partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, adding that the employees “might have very little say.”

“For those employees who have been working from home temporarily as a result of COVID and it’s been made clear to them that it is a temporary measure … the employer in those cases does have the right to return employees back to the office,” he told Global News.

However, there are exceptions to that rule. For instance, if your contract does allow virtual work or if you had been working from home permanently even before COVID-19, then you can continue to do so.

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Medical exemptions can also be granted for the immunocompromised and those employees who have any other health issues that can make it risky for them to work in an office environment.

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“With a doctor’s note that employee would be allowed to continue working from home,” said Lucifero.

The same goes for employees who are living with vulnerable family members, in which case an off-site working arrangement can be accommodated, said Kevin Banks, director of the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace at Queen’s University.

Employers must also ensure a healthy and safe office environment for their employees when they do return, which can include mask requirements, screening protocols and contact tracing, Banks said.

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In any case, there should be greater flexibility during the transition period, especially as employees may be feeling uncomfortable coming back in, experts say.

Employees should also be able to voice any concerns and preferences and be part of the conversation about returning to the office.

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“It may make a lot of sense from the perspective of good management practice and retaining your employees to talk to them about their situation and to work out arrangements that make sense for both the employer and the employee,” said Banks.

— with files from Global News’ Craig Lord.

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