‘Not a cookie-cutter solution’: Why remote work doesn’t work for everyone

As companies look to the future of work, one expert says they shouldn’t assume everyone prefers to work from home.

“It is far from a good thing for everyone,” said Laurent Lapierre, a professor of workplace behaviour at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

“It would be foolish for an organization, and even an employee, to just assume that ‘No problem, this is just the way of the future.… There’s no longer going to be an office space.'”

The pandemic has changed the way we work, turning office hallway chats into instant messages and conference room brainstorm sessions into group video calls.

Many workers are enjoying the flexibility to work in pyjamas and avoid highway traffic on their daily commute. But for those who crave the social aspect of working next to colleagues — or the routine that a 9-to-5 office job offers — the switch to working from home has impacted both their mental and physical health, said Lapierre.

“We’ve seen people blatantly disregard the public health guidelines to not congregate — they’re struggling. We need that human contact and that includes people at work,” he told Cross Country Checkup.

Laurent Lapierre is a professor of workplace behaviour at University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. (Submitted by Laurent Lapierre)

Canadians favour hybrid approach: Statistics Canada

Without a doubt, COVID-19 forced a seismic shift in the way we work.

“Work from home used to be something that you did once in a while [and] it used to be a very small percentage of the workforce,” said Andrew Au, a workplace culture consultant and president of Intercept Group North America.

“What’s different now is that the masses had to go remote.”

According to a report by Statistics Canada, 32 per cent of Canadian employees between the ages of 15 and 69 worked most of their hours from home at the beginning of 2021. That’s compared to just four per cent in 2016.

Workplace culture consultant Andrew Au says many people who can work from home will want to continue to do so after the pandemic is over, meaning some kind of hybrid between home and office work is here to stay. 10:30

With that in mind, Au believes that a hybrid model, where employees split time between an office and their home, is undoubtedly the future.

The majority of Canadian workers agree that’s the ideal scenario, according to Statistics Canada, with 41 per cent of respondents favouring half their time spent working at home, with the other half in an office.

But among the biggest factors affecting productivity? A lack of interaction with co-workers, the report finds.

That has workplaces adapting to the new reality by changing office footprints — often to feature more space for workers — and upgrading technology to better connect workers at home and in a conference room.

“The one thing we’ve learned about this hybrid, virtual environment is that virtual can work, but it cannot replace the value of in-person interaction,” said Au.

“There still is a need for a physical office. The frequency in which it’s used is going to change. The number of people in there at any given time is going to change, but I think there’s still going to be a need for that.”

Andrew Au expects companies will shift to a hybrid model that allows employees to split their time between the office and their home. (LightField Studio/Shutterstock)

Changes inevitable

Au said businesses which do not adjust their workforce plans to include work from home options for employees could struggle post-pandemic. He called it an “investment” in people.

“You need great people and the workforce expects a hybrid environment, and if you can’t deliver them that you will not have the human capital to be successful,” he said.

“If you’re not going to do it for your core business value, do it for your people.”

Lapierre agreed that offices will inevitably see fewer staff going forward — and that could improve some aspects of workplace culture, including a move away from the need for “face time” meetings with management.

“That’s not a bad thing, because face time is really a very poor proxy for doing a good job, for being committed to the work, to the organization.”

Still, Lapierre cautioned against ditching the office entirely and switching employees to remote work. He argues that employers risk losing staff to other jobs — or having staff who “become increasingly distressed and suffer in terms of mental and physical health.”

“That would be dangerous, in my view,” he said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter solution for everyone.”

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Caroline Carucci.