Almost five million Canadians started working from home since March 2020, but not all jobs can be done remotely, and the question of which jobs can—and who has those jobs—is important to answer as we think about how to keep employees safe and begin resuming operations.
Just as the pandemic’s effects were unevenly distributed, endangering some Canadians more than others, there is a very real chance that the recovery efforts will have uneven effects that worsen existing problems.
While companies are reopening their doors, the possibility of additional shutdowns still looms, so it’s worth thinking more about what working from home means in the long term. Many employees who weren’t empowered to work from home and weren’t considered essential lost their jobs during the shutdown.
From previous mass job losses, like the 2008 recession, we know that job loss has long-term consequences on earnings. Even five years after a permanent layoff, many workers will still see significant harm to their earnings, so the question of who gets to work from home right now and who does not has profound consequences.
Workers without university degrees or with few years of experience are especially vulnerable to layoffs, and workers who earned little before the pandemic are less likely to work from home now. It’s true that many jobs cannot currently be performed from home, but that shouldn’t be the endpoint of the discussion. Take this opportunity to analyse how your company organizes work and designs jobs. Ask yourself whether you can redesign these jobs, and work with your employees to understand the reality of their work.
You might think the work must be done in person without realizing that your employees know ways to change processes that would accommodate working from home. Sometimes the solution means investing in technology, but those investments might be surprisingly small: a pair of headphones, a simple adapter, even a fifty-foot Ethernet cable could make all the difference to an employee’s work but require little up-front cost for your organization. Talk to your employees about what they need, and don’t presume the changes will be expensive and time-consuming.
As organizations begin to resume operations, it’s tempting to rush back to business as usual, but this pandemic means business as usual isn’t enough. Even while you reopen, take time to consider changes you can make to your organization to address employees’ continuing needs. Some still have caregiving duties, some are still at elevated risk of infection, and some are rightly concerned about keeping safe in crowded workplaces. Don’t just seek out the easy and obvious changes, either: look harder at structural assumptions about how work gets done and who does it. Involve employees in coming up with solutions, even in making decisions about what to try. Employees who feel well-treated do better work and stay longer with their employers, and your changes are more likely to bear fruit if the people they affect are part of the process from the beginning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world of work. Now that things are starting to get back to the ordinary, let’s remember to ask ourselves,
“How can we make work extraordinary?”
- Chan, Ping Ching Winnie, René Morissette, Hanqing Qiu. “COVID-19 and job displacement: Thinking about the longer term.” Statistics Canada, June 10, 2020.
- Messacar, Derek, René Morissette, Zechuan Deng. “Inequality in the feasibility of working from home during and after COVID-19.” Statistics Canada, June 8, 2020.
- Denis, Jen. “Nearly 5 million more Canadians are working from home, and many like it: surveys.” CTV News, April 19, 2020.
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