Employees like Matt Fairbanks are one of the reasons the hospitality and restaurant industry is struggling to find workers even as the coronavirus pandemic wanes.
The 34-year-old former bartender has moved from slinging beers in Toronto to selling software to restaurants for a Saskatchewan company, which he does remotely. “I was always kind of one foot out of the hospitality industry and the pandemic really showed me how vulnerable the work was and the instability of it all,” he says.
Remote work flourished during the pandemic as companies temporarily closed their offices, but it has created a schism among Canadian employees. While experts say 40 per cent of work in Canada can be done remotely, that means 60 per cent of workers are unable to access this benefit because they’re required to be onsite.
And that can create resentment and a backlash from workers viewed as essential, such as nurses, ambulance workers and retail employees, who were applauded during the pandemic but are unable to realize the benefits that come from working remotely, says change management expert Linda Duxbury, a chancellor’s professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, who has studied remote work for decades. “The problem we’re going to have here is we’re going to create two classes of workers — the haves and the have nots.”
The ability to work remotely has been one of the pivotal moments in the history of work, even though its application is generally limited to knowledge workers, says Erica Pimentel, assistant professor of accounting at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “So when 60 per cent of the workforce is excluded from this massive change, that’s obviously going to have some implications for society.”
Duxbury cautions the jury’s still out on remote work or what she calls “enforced work from home.” She constantly hears from businesses seeking best practices and examples of what others are doing. But she says it’s too early to assess the work style as everybody is experimenting with different models. “Remote work during the pandemic was one big giant experiment. Now we’re moving to the second experiment, which is hybrid work.”
Despite the drawbacks, remote work is increasingly favoured, especially by generation Z, digital natives who have always had access to the internet and social media, says Pimentel.
This cohort is coming of age and joining the workforce with new attitudes about employers’ duty to them and how different parts of their lives fit together that’s different from millennials, generation X and baby boomers, who are in many cases now the bosses. “And so there’s this generational mismatch between bosses and their employees and everybody is unhappy,” she says.
Faced with record job vacancies amid decades-low unemployment rates and threats of resignations, employers have been forced to be flexible. That means employees with a skill that’s in demand can negotiate better work conditions than somebody without those skills. Technology workers, who accounted for most of the three per cent of Canadians who worked remotely before the pandemic, are among those in the driver’s seat now.
Demands to work remotely have gone from being the exception to the rule because it’s so hard to compete for talent, says Kristina McDougall, founder and president of executive search firm Artemis, which specializes in technology employment. “Unless there’s an absolute reason why you physically need to be present, like you’re working on a robot or you need to be in the building, most organizations are having to be flexible.”
The growth in remote work has also transformed where companies source their workforce because people can work anywhere and don’t have to be near a company headquarters. That widens the jobs an individual can consider, but it also gives companies a wider pool of candidates as well as increased competition with other potential suitors.
McDougall believes the movement to remote work is permanent for sectors like technology because the pandemic has proven that organizations can get things built with people working remotely. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. People are now finding it trivial that they might need to go into an office every day.”