The coronavirus pandemic ushered in a new world of work when organizations in most sectors were forced to find ways to operate virtually.

Three years later, many employees — especially younger generations — want these flexible working options to stay. “Like many other firms, our employee demographic is mostly made up of millennials and [generation] Zs,” says Van Zorbas, chief culture and people officer for Canada and Chile at Deloitte Canada. “They’ve had devices since they were born and collaborate, learn and communicate electronically. This is how they live, so this notion of telling everyone they have to be in the office at certain times is dead, from my perspective.”

Read: Half of employers plan to continue flexible working policies post-pandemic: survey

But while many employers continue to offer a variety of working models, they’re also struggling to find new ways to measure productivity. “Most of the people who were sent home during COVID were knowledge workers because their jobs could be done remotely,” says Linda Duxbury, a chancellor’s professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. “The problem is, we never had good measures of knowledge worker productivity even before the pandemic because their work is not routine and has a creative element.”

Deloitte Canada has been exploring new ways to measure productivity for more than a decade, says Zorbas, noting the pandemic simply accelerated the process. “We already had productivity measures in place — they’re called hours. But we don’t like that measurement and we’ve been using analytics, data and behavioural science to really try to figure out what that measurement needs to be.”

Privacy issues

It’s a different story for smaller firms, many of which already outsource functions such as payroll, benefits and time and attendance.

Some of these employers are also measuring productivity by purchasing software that collects data such as the activity of a computer mouse, keystrokes, email usage, web browsing history or what’s on people’s screens at any given moment.

Read: Ontario’s electronic monitoring policy ensures employer transparency: lawyer

This can lead to liability issues, says John Wunderlich, senior advisor at the Privacy Pro. “For example, it’s against the law in Canada to record people without their knowledge and we have quite specific federal and provincial privacy laws and regulations.”

By the numbers

5M — The approximate number of Canadian employees who were working remotely in early 2021, according to Statistics Canada

63% — The percentage of employers with a significant number of employees working from home since the beginning of the pandemic, with the majority planning to keep their workforce partially (79%) or fully (5%) remote, according to Benefits Canada’s 2022 Future of Work survey

80% — The percentage of Canadians who want to work from home at least half of the time once the pandemic is over, according to StatsCan

56% — The percentage of people currently working from home who’d look for a new job if they were asked to return to the office full time, including 23% who would quit on the spot, according to Angus Reid

Federally, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act governs how private sector organizations collect, use and disclose personal information. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have their own private sector privacy laws that may apply instead of PIPEDA, but these laws mostly apply to customer privacy.

Last October, Ontario became the first jurisdiction to enact electronic monitoring legislation. The Working for Workers Act requires organizations with 25 or more employees to disclose any technology they’re using to monitor employees. “This legislation does not prevent employers from using electronic monitoring,” says Wunderlich. “They just have to say [they’re using it.]”

While he acknowledges some employers feel they have the right to keep tabs on their employees, he notes there’s more at stake than contravening privacy legislation. “People who don’t feel trusted or are being micromanaged by their employer are going to react accordingly. There’s a correlation between employees who feel their employer respects their privacy and [their] organizational commitment.”

Tie to emotional health

Duxbury, whose research centres on work-life balance, employee well-being, change management and telework, thinks many employers are focusing on the wrong things.

“If you’ve requested deliverables in a timely fashion then you can assume people are performing. The data is pretty clear that most employees are getting things done — by working more hours. That’s not productivity and it’s come at a cost in terms of mental health.”

Read: 2022 Healthy Outcomes Conference: Centering employee well-being in return-to-office plans

Indeed, the current state of workplace mental health is precarious, she says, noting people are emotional, frustrated and stressed, so micromanaging, invasive monitoring practices or unreasonable expectations will only hamper productivity and organizational commitment. “One essential factor in improving people’s emotional health — and therefore productivity — is social contact. We’ve done a lot of research on working at home and [found] one or two days a week is ideal because employees are balancing interacting with friends and colleagues at work and being able to focus at home alone.”

Zorbas agrees. “We know there are some things that are better done in the office like performance management, conflict resolution, connecting with clients and colleagues and team building. About a third of our people come into the office on any given day when we’re tracking it, but we’re not looking for a specific goal.”

Deloitte is also focusing on moving from an input-based productivity model to an outcome-based one. “Employers with a results-oriented work environment are less likely to use workplace surveillance than those who are more interested that people are in their seats for eight hours,” says Wunderlich.

Read: 90% of Canadian remote workers say working from home hasn’t hurt productivity: survey

The pandemic forced employers to make virtual work a reality, but subsequently, many found it difficult to manage employees in this environment. If employers aren’t rethinking how to better manage, support and mentor their employees virtually and in person, it will only lead to increased workplace conflicts, turnover and errors, as well as decreased productivity.

“Every company is different, so leaders have to ask themselves what’s best for their clients and their people,” says Zorbas. “But I believe this new normal is a real opportunity to change how businesses look at productivity.”

Moira Potter is a freelance writer.