A fine balance: office imperatives and remote work flexibility

More than 12 months have now gone by since British Columbians were advised to stay at home and limit contact with everybody who was not already inside their home. Schools were closed and events were cancelled. Still, one of the biggest transformations spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic came in the form of the new “home office.”

Early in the 21st century, company-issued mobile phones and laptops were not the norm. While originally introduced as perks for senior employees, these devices became vital in a world where decisions are made after office hours and on weekends. This hardware allowed a significant number of British Columbians to work from home during the pandemic.

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Research Co. and Glacier Media recently asked employed British Columbians about what they can expect from their workplace after the pandemic is over. There is an evident desire to keep some of the current features. After all, 54% of the employees we spoke to have had to work from home at least some of the time over the past year.

Many of the province’s workers believe that some of the old ways of doing business will not return post-COVID-19. Significant proportions of employed British Columbians predict fewer in-person staff meetings (47%), less business travel between offices (44%) and a smaller number of in-person business development meetings (43%).

Companies have adapted to the current state of affairs through Zoom calls and other forms of engagement where in-person contact is no longer necessary. The coffees and lunches with potential clients that were part of life in 2019 have inevitably turned into phone calls and virtual discussions.

This new way of conducting business is not lost on employees, who believe they will continue to rely on virtual tools to handle internal matters and find potential customers. Half of employees in British Columbia (50%) foresee more virtual staff meetings through audio or video conferencing and similar proportions think they will see more virtual business development (47%) and virtual communications between offices (46%) when the pandemic is behind us.

Some executives may be aching for people to go back to their original workplaces. Last summer’s partial return to activity was all about social distancing, breathing spaces, virus protection and contact reduction. These issues are easier to manage in settings for retail or food services, but much more complex for people who devote their time to content creation or technology. We must also acknowledge that a return to full-time work at an office is a moving target. At this point, only 32% of British Columbians who are working from home have been informed about a plan for a return to the office.

While many British Colum--
bians worked from home to avoid getting sick, their experience has been mostly satisfactory. Only 10% of British Columbians who are currently working from home expect a complete return to the office when COVID-19 is done. One-third (33%) think they will be able to work from home once or twice a week, while a larger proportion (38%) anticipate using their home office for three days a week or more. 

Having the opportunity to work from home post-COVID-19 is essential for many employed British Columbians who have turned their dining rooms or kitchens into offices. Practically half of them (49%) say they are likely to seek a different job if their company does not allow them to work from home as often as they want. This could lead to deeper discussions about company culture and flex time in the fall and winter.

Some British Columbians who are working from home are beginning to see that geography no longer limits their career opportunities. Majorities say they would consider switching to a different job that can be performed from home for a company based in their metropolitan area (56%) or province (54%). Almost two in five (39%) would consider reporting to someone in a different Canadian province, if they can work from home.

Our findings outline the challenge for B.C.’s companies in the post-pandemic world: how to strike the right balance between the workplace of the past and the ability of employees to carry on with their duties from home at least some of the time. Executives who attempt to compel their workforce to simply show up from 9 to 5 as they did in February 2020 may find themselves pushing their employees away to companies that will give them the flexibility they currently enjoy. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted on March 8 and March 9 among 700 adults who work in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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