Head to head: Should remote working continue after the pandemic?

The past few months have upended the traditional workplace, but whether remote working remains the norm is still up for debate.

Robby Kwok, senior vice-president of people at Slack Technologies Inc.

We’re never going back to the old way. The last few months have demonstrated that it’s possible for teams to thrive in a distributed model. We’re at the beginning of a generational shift that will see remote working become a much more prominent component of the employee experience.

At Slack, our experience has taught us there are indisputably positive aspects of remote work that we should hold on to over the long term. And there are also very real challenges we need to overcome.

Read: Slack allowing employees to work from home permanently

On the positive end of the spectrum, Slack has already started taking advantage of remote work to tap into a much broader pool of talent — we recently announced we’ll increasingly hire employees who are primarily remote and we’re giving existing employees the option to work remotely on a permanent basis.

We have also adapted to a much more asynchronous work cadence. By removing the expectation that work happens primarily in the office between 9 and 5, employees have the flexibility to work the hours that suit their individual needs.

On the more challenging end of the spectrum, Slack is working hard to overcome the reality that, for some people, prolonged remote work leads to heightened anxiety, isolation and stress. There are also employees who aren’t well-suited to remote work because of family commitments or living arrangements that make it difficult to carve out time and space for work. And there are intangible benefits to the casual social interaction that happens in an office, which will always be difficult to replicate in a remote environment.

Read: Remote working, distributed workforces could be part of new normal post-coronavirus

The pandemic has profoundly shaken long-established norms about traditional work. Every organization needs to reimagine the employee experience to take advantage of the new opportunities that have opened up, while being clear-eyed about the fact that potential pitfalls are hiding around the corner.

Tina Dacin, Stephen J.R. Smith chair of strategy and organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business

Since COVID-19 reached our borders, media discussion has centred on a permanent shift to remote work. However, several issues need to be resolved before remote work is declared the new business-as-usual.

Before the coronavirus, workplace boundaries were mostly clear with a set of expectations for deliverables and performance. From the outset, the pandemic blurred the lines between professional and personal responsibilities. Before, Canadians could focus entirely on their jobs at the office. Now, working from home, employees may have to be a caregiver, parent or teacher at any given time. It’s a new balancing act and it isn’t sustainable without additional resources or supports.

Read: How can employers manage work-from-home burnout?

In addition to the struggle of maintaining a work-life balance at home, working remotely raises several ethical questions around employer responsibilities. For instance, will they cover expenses for office furniture or high-speed internet? What about improved health and wellness benefits? How can employers fulfill the need for camaraderie? These are all crucial questions.

When it comes to returning to the office, there are also financial implications for employers — they may have to find larger workspaces or even front the cost of issuing personal protective equipment to employees. How can we be sure employers won’t attempt to persuade staff to continue working remotely to cut back on costs, even if it isn’t in employees’ best interests?

Lastly, one large concern is the impact that remote working may have on the economy. If a physical presence isn’t required, an employer is no longer limited to hiring locally. Organizations could outsource all work, which could have serious consequences on cities across Canada.

Today, too many unanswered questions exist to make remote working a viable option for everyone in the long term. Rather than seeing employers declare a permanent shift to a new remote culture, the choice of where and how employees work should be up to employees.

Read: Employers moving to remote work to help ‘flatten the coronavirus curve’