Editorial: Looking back — and ahead — in an unprecedented year

As the days grow warmer and Canada’s gradual seasonal shift steers toward spring, employers across the country are finally implementing their longstanding and much-delayed plans for returning to in-person offices or worksites — despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is deep into a sixth wave.

It’s important to recognize that the workplaces we’re returning to have fundamentally changed. While it certainly depends on their industry or sector, organizations are looking at a variety of new ways of working, whether that’s mandating that all employees return to full-time in-person work, implementing hybrid work schedules or allowing staff to continue working remotely most of the time.

Indeed, the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey found 41 per cent of employee respondents were open to adopting a hybrid work schedule, while 28 per cent said they’d like to work exclusively from home and just seven per cent indicated they don’t want to continue working remotely after the pandemic recedes.

Read: What are Canadian employees’ top concerns about returning to workplace?

Employer respondents reported their organizations would like 45 per cent of their workforces to continue working from home after the pandemic. But 68 per cent also expressed some concerns about home-based employees returning to the workplace, including re-establishing workplace culture (37 per cent), balancing the needs of a hybrid workforce (33 per cent) and employees not following public health safety measures (25 per cent).

When the 2022 version of the survey is published later this year, it will be interesting to see how — and whether — responses to these questions have changed.

Inevitably, returning to the workplace after two years will raise a lot of considerations for employers and employees alike. In the same way that we’ve moved leaps and bounds into the future of the workplace, it won’t be as simple as just retracing our steps to return to where we started. The past two years have led to significant — and, in some cases, irreversible — changes, so we have to recognize this monumental shift and tackle it with open eyes and flexibility.

Read: Lyft allowing office workers to choose where to live and work

Read: Canadian banks pausing return-to-office plans amid spread of Omicron variant

For example, many employers are allowing employees to choose where they work going forward. One of these is ride-share company Lyft Inc., which introduced a flexible working strategy that puts that decision in the hands of its office-based employees. It noted the new flexible workplace differs from remote-first models since it also considers spending some time in the office as a valuable part of the company’s culture.

Other employers, such as several of Canada’s largest financial institutions, paused their return-to-office plans in early 2022 due to the Omicron variant, but the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada and Scotiabank all began shifting back to in-person work in March. For Scotiabank, in particular, the initial return to the office was voluntary, but in April it began a 10-week gradual and phased re-entry with different teams returning on different dates.

Another option for the workplace of the future is the four-day workweek, which two experts tackle in this month’s Head to Head debate. In global pilot projects, early evidence around the benefits of this option is promising, with organizations citing the ease of attracting and retaining talent, an increase in productivity and improved employee well-being.

Read: Head to head: Should Canada implement a four-day workweek?

My workplace is settling somewhere in the middle of the first two options — no talk about a four-day workweek yet, unfortunately. In April, we all returned to a physical office, but the dates we come in are flexible and only one day per week is mandated.

I’m an exception to that rule. Going forward, remote working will remain my default the vast majority of the time. Since the pandemic started, I became one of those clichéd city dwellers who fled to the country. Fortunately for me, I had purchased a house in Prince Edward County, Ont. in 2018, so it was a no-brainer to isolate out there when the pandemic was declared. And I never came back. So I’ll be commuting into Toronto once a month to see my colleagues in person.

Like most people, I have mixed feelings about the new arrangement. Believe me, I know how lucky I am to work for an employer that’s allowing me to live three hours away from the office. But let me also add: I’ve never been more productive than I’ve been over the last two years. Without my Toronto commute — and alongside my new life as a single parent — this arrangement is undoubtedly the best thing that’s ever happened to my work-life balance.

Read: What are the top countries for work-life balance?

However, I do miss seeing my colleagues every day and the casual connections we used to share in the office. As countless people have said before me, the Teams and Zoom meetings are just not the same as sharing your weekend updates with your office bestie who sits mere inches away.

So I think the most important part of adjusting to the next phase of this wild ride is being open to it and taking it a day at a time. When it comes to our new workplaces, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to listen, try and change again, if it’s required. I know it’s a lot, especially after the overload of the past two years, but I also believe we’ll come out on the other side with workplaces that suit the modernizing needs of both employers and employees.

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.