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‘Telework’ Can Be a Life Changer

That’s especially true for people with health risks. How the pandemic shifted job expectations in a tight market.

Brishti Basu 2 Apr 2024The Tyee

Brishti Basu reports on labour for The Tyee. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on X @brish_ti.

About a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, North Vancouver-based data analyst Alison Legge made a big move to London, England, for a job that offered a flexible work-from-home policy.

Legge was diagnosed at age three with juvenile idiopathic arthritis — a condition that has meant a lifetime of chronic pain, fatigue and a calendar full of doctor’s appointments. Being able to work from home during the pandemic allowed her to take a chance.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could make such a big move and still manage navigating a new city and a new job,” Legge said, recalling transplanting herself and her two-year-old dog Jovo to a new continent.

The policy let Legge take meetings in the office but work from home the rest of the time or take hours off for doctor’s appointments and make them up later, without having to report to her employers.

“I had a lot of flexibility and I developed hobbies and just found things that I really like to do in London that I had never really done in Vancouver. Within three months I felt like I had really made a life here,” Legge said.

When, after about a year, the company decided to require its employees to return to the office, Legge asked for accommodations. The company was evasive, so Legge decided to move on to a different job that would allow remote work.

A young woman with dark curly hair and light skin wearing a graduation robe smiles while seated at an outdoor table.
Data analyst Alison Legge, who has a severe form of arthritis, was able to move jobs from Vancouver to London, UK, because her employer allowed her to work from home. Photo supplied.

In British Columbia and across Canada, many share Legge’s priorities. According to Sylvia Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies labour market inequalities, workplaces that continue to allow work-from-home options are coveted by skilled workers for several reasons.

“If you have a situation that gives you more flexibility in your life, gives you back more time and reduces your costs of commuting and eating out for lunch, that’s an important work characteristic for many people,” said Fuller.

“There are lots of anecdotal reports” of companies facing more turnover after requiring employees to return to the workplace, she added.

Working from home is a particularly important requirement for people and families with higher health risks, Fuller said, especially as COVID-19 continues to circulate without any protective measures left in most workplaces.

In addition to people like Legge who have chronic health conditions, Fuller said family members of immunocompromised people also have more need for flexibility in their workplace.

“If you are the family member of someone who's highly immunocompromised, and you’re not able to protect yourself from infection in your workplace and your employer is insisting that you come back and work in an office where people have now shifted to the mindset that [COVID-19] is not that big a deal, if someone gets [sick] and you bring that home, that can be catastrophic,” Fuller said.

‘It changed the way managers responded’

Last year, B.C. introduced a policy expanding public sector workers’ right to request remote work, where feasible, and have the employer seriously consider their request and make accommodations.

It’s a policy the BC General Employees’ Union — which represents over 85,000 workers, about a third of whom work for the provincial government — had sought to include in its contract during collective bargaining last year without success. It wasn’t until after bargaining had concluded that changes were announced, said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in an interview with The Tyee.

“Interestingly, the new head of the public service, Shannon Salter, met with us after bargaining had concluded and she had taken on that role and said that for her, that sort of work flexibility was something that she really did want to look at for the public sector.”

The public sector includes a wide variety of workers, such as corrections officers, wildland firefighters, social workers and liquor store employees — jobs in which working from home is not possible.

But for administrative and other professional roles within government where it is possible, Smith said that prior to last year’s policy, the default position was for ministries to say no to remote work unless the employee could prove that working from home wouldn’t make a difference to their output.

“What Shannon, as the head of the public service, then directed ministries [to do] was ‘Let's default to yes, unless there's a really good operational reason why the remote work wouldn't be appropriate,’” Smith said. “It sort of just changed the way in which managers responded to those requests.”

According to a statement to The Tyee from the Ministry of Finance, which oversees the BC Public Service Agency, 58 per cent of government employees have “telework” or remote work agreements in place.

“A telework request might be denied if telework is not operationally feasible for their role, or if the employee’s work performance history is not satisfactory,” reads the statement.

From BCGEU members who’ve used this new policy, Smith said she’s heard no complaints — “usually, that’s a good sign,” she said. The arrangement works for both employees and the employer, Smith added.

“Being able to do your work from home and not worrying about that commute can make a really big difference [especially] for people who have caregiving roles, whether it’s with young children, elderly parents, others who require that support,” Smith said.

“For the employers, when they are posting [job] positions now, someone who doesn’t have to move to take that position can [apply for] it and that's a good thing when it's a very tight labour market and there's a lot of competition for good workers.”

A middle-aged light-skinned woman with shoulder-length brown hair and black rimmed glasses speaks at a podium.
BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said British Columbia’s new remote work acceptance policy has had no complaints. Photo via X.

In a memo to ministries last year, Salter had noted that about 3,000 people left the B.C. public service in 2022, more than previous years despite the number of retirements holding steady.

Prior to the policy change, it was up to individual ministries, regional managers and directors to decide who gets their remote work request approved and who doesn’t.

Now, Smith says, the approach has become more consistent across the board, with a few hiccups along the way.

“This is a new way of doing work, and with a new way always comes some challenges as well,” Smith said.

She shared an example of early days of remote work implementation when a public sector employer refused a day’s pay to a person who was working from home and had to pause work because their community had a power outage.

“Our position, of course, is ‘No, that’s not how that works,’” Smith said. “If the power went out at a ministry building and you had to send everybody home, they would be paid for that day.”

Other challenges with implementation that Smith said are managed on a case-by-case basis include making sure occupational health and safety standards are being met within work setups at home, and pushing back against employers expecting workers to be available outside of work hours just because they work from home.

What the data says

The Statistics Canada labour force survey released in November found that across the country, the number of people working from home dropped from 24.3 per cent in January 2022 to 12.6 per cent in November 2023. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about seven per cent of the labour force worked from home.

Two years ago is also when hybrid agreements — working partly from an office and partly from home — began to gain traction, the survey found.

“The share of workers with hybrid arrangements has more than tripled since January 2022,” reads the report, finding that these arrangements were most popular for parents with children below age five.

These trends, Smith points out, are reflected in office space vacancy rates, which are at a record high across the country, according to the latest report from commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE.

A silhouetted figure walks by a For Lease sign at the base of a downtown highrise office building.
Toronto’s King Street: office vacancy rates are at a record high across Canada as a Statistics Canada report finds 40 per cent of jobs can be done from home. Photo by Tijana Martin, the Canadian Press.

In a separate report released in January 2023 specifically about work-from-home habits in Canada, Statistics Canada notes that 40 per cent of jobs in the country can technically be done from home.

Nine out of 10 workers surveyed in that report who were new to remote work said their productivity level was about the same as when they worked on site.

“Whether Canadian employers’ assessments of teleworkers’ productivity align with those of their employees remains an open question,” reads the report.

About 25 per cent of workers also said they would prefer to work more hours from home than they’d been doing. This mismatch between what workers want and what they’re offered, the report says, “may have important implications for employee retention.”

Those who were more likely to work exclusively from home in 2022 included the public administration sector, people in the “information and cultural industries,” finance and insurance, science and technical services, and those who worked for large firms, according to Statistics Canada.

When asked whether she thinks B.C.’s approach to public sector workers’ accommodations has had an impact on private sector policies, Smith said it’s a “chicken and egg” situation.

“I don’t know whether the public service influenced the private sector or the private sector influenced the public service,” Smith said.

“It’s a tight labour market and employers have to be competitive if they want to draw qualified, good employees, and having the flexibility of offering remote work is a benefit.”

‘I said it’s too late’

For Legge, the move to London for a dream job would not have been possible if the world hadn’t shifted to remote work. Once that flexibility was scaled back by her employer, she found a different job that would accommodate her needs.

“I was the only one on my team up for promotion and the work that I had done was valuable to the company,” Legge said, talking about the job that she left because of a lack of accommodation. “The day I quit I was told my promotion had gone through. And I said it’s too late.”

After navigating the ins and outs of advocating for herself in the workplace as a young woman with a disability, Legge is participating in a workplace advocacy webinar on April 9 hosted by Cassie and Friends Society, a Vancouver-based charity for children and families affected by juvenile idiopathic arthritis and other rheumatic diseases.

“It’s hard when you're 18, 19 or early 20s and you don’t really have experience in different workforces,” Legge said, explaining the purpose of the webinar. “It’s hard to understand what's fair for your employer to ask of you and what’s not, so that’s something that I'm hoping we can discuss.”  [Tyee]

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