This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Linda Nazareth, April 1, 2022
Yup, it’s time. Dust off your lunch bag, arrange for a dog walker, buy some clothes that are not also appropriate for taking a quick couch nap. The return to the office is here and there is no looking back. But should there be?
As we reach the two-year anniversary of the first COVID-19-related lockdowns, workers are being herded back to their offices in droves. The public sector is leading the way with Ontario and Alberta bringing people back in person on at least a part-time basis in April, but many private sector companies are following suit as well. Some companies are not on the back-to-the-office bandwagon – Twitter has said that workers can stay at home forever if they want – but by and large there seems to be agreement amongst companies, if not amongst workers, that some form of hybrid work is best.
Part of the argument for bringing people to work is that it is what is normal and the pandemic experience was the aberration. But at least from a historical context that is not exactly true and, in fact, working from home actually used to be the norm. In the most primitive agrarian societies, people farmed to live and not much else. That lifestyle gave way in most of the world to something of an early gig economy, where people had skills in blacksmithing or milling or sewing but primarily did those things from where they lived as well. It was only with the industrial revolution of the late 1700s that the means of production for most people started to be at a factory away from their homes, and then at an office where they kept the typewriters or other machinery. From that point on, working from home was not an option for most.
Now, however, work has changed with the advent of the third and fourth industrial revolutions, in that technology allows us to communicate well with each other from disparate locations. To be sure, there are those who will always have to leave home to work (there are few home-based surgeons or bus drivers), but many people now have the option. Companies cannot make the argument that in order to use computers or the internet, employees need to make the trek into the office, and workers know that very well. There are of course other arguments to be made in favour of working together, including the assertion that you cannot work as a team effectively if everyone is on teleconference, but they are not well-received by everyone or even perhaps accurate.
With talent likely to be in short supply in the future, it is perhaps a bold decision to say that everyone needs to come to the office to work. Companies that make this a requirement may find their policies have to be tweaked if the talent they want is simply not available on such terms. If the ideal candidate lives in the Atlantic (where they moved during the pandemic) and the office is in Toronto, there is going to be a push to hire them anyway. Making one exception, however, will either lead to making more or creating an angry and resentful work force.
There are other, broader considerations as well. The environment will be a much-discussed topic in the years ahead and it is difficult to argue against the fact that less commuting would mean less environmental damage, to say nothing of car accidents. Companies that insist on having everyone pile on to transit or highways could be seen as doing environmental damage that could be reversed with a change in policy.
And changes in policy may well be what we see in future as we learn more about the feasibility of different work models. It is something akin to our learning around COVID-19 and the way it operates. After all, two years ago we hoped the pandemic would be over once scientists came up with a vaccine and everyone got jabbed, but now we know that a clear-cut finish is perhaps not in the cards for a while. That is probably how we should think about the edict to return to work as well. Sure, let’s try it, but let’s also be prepared for the policies set in 2022 to not be the same ones in place in five or 10 years.
It has been difficult for organizations to manage a newly remote work force and it will be difficult to manage a hybrid one as well. From the setup of offices to formal evaluations, everything about work has been designed assuming we are all in the same building. When some are at work and happy to be there, and some are at work but would rather be working at home, and some manage to find ways to work from home more than others, and not everyone is happy, you have a difficult challenge for leadership and one that few have been trained to handle. But that calls for better strategy and better preparation, not a forced return to life as we knew it in 2019.
Linda Nazareth is host of the Work and the Future podcast and Senior Fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.