You may not like the high salary increases being demanded by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which has caused 155,000 federal workers to walk off the job, but many people are onside with one of their demands: the ability to work from home.
Less than half of Canadians support an annual 4.5 per cent wage increase for the next three years and more paid family leave, according to a recent survey by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute. But 55 per cent support the strikers’ fight for workplace flexibility, which is a testament to how much people still value remote work, three years on from being forced into their home offices by pandemic restrictions.
The return to the office has been a pain point for federal workers since December, when Treasury Board president Mona Fortier announced employees would soon need to be in the office two to three days a week. The policy, which ordered workers to spend between 40 to 60 per cent of their hours onsite, officially took effect on March 31. But it has faced significant pushback from public-sector unions. PSAC decried the hybrid-work mandate as “senseless,” and Chris Aylward, the union’s national president, described members as “furious” over the plan.
“The federal government’s blanket hybrid work plan … forces a flawed one-size-fits-all approach on a diverse and evolving public service,” PSAC said in a statement in December. The union added that more than 80 per cent of PSAC members opposed the return-to-office policy and were prepared to strike to “fight for better work-life balance.” We’re currently on day seven of that threatened strike.
But federal workers could be on track to regain work-from-home rights. Aylward says the union has “made some headway on remote work language” for Treasury Board staffers. That will have implications beyond PSAC. Any concessions won in the public sector will be closely watched by employees in the private sector, many of whom also want to keep working from home.
Whether bosses like it or not, remote work remains popular and is even an expected condition of employment among some office workers, research shows. In a recent, separate Angus Reid study on remote work, 31 per cent of hybrid workers say they’d come back to the office full time if asked, but they’d also start looking for another job. Another 21 per cent say they’d quit right away. Overall, 51 per cent say they want to work from home more than from the office, and a quarter want to work at home all the time.
Women also continue to show a stronger preference for remote work than men, the survey shows. Part of that could be because 81 per cent of remote workers say their work-life balance is better. Of course, that’s a win not just for employees, but for employers that have been seeking ways to shore up employee mental health amid declining engagement and higher turnover.
Still, that’s not enough to keep bosses from pushing back against remote work. For example, Royal Bank of Canada chief executive Dave McKay has ordered employees back to the office three to four days a week, arguing that working from home is bad for business. “The absence of working together in many ways has led to productivity and innovation challenges,” he said in March. “Society isn’t back together enough and working enough.”
Other bank CEOs also have qualms about how remote work is impacting the broader economy. National Bank of Canada chief executive Laurent Ferreira on April 21 said that while he isn’t about to ask employees to come back to the office more often, he is worried about how flexible work is impacting businesses in Montreal. “I’m concerned for downtown Montreal and I think the business community has a very great responsibility (to ensure) the dynamism of Montreal’s ecosystem,” he said.
A decline in office vacancy rates is also cause for concern for many economy watchers. The office vacancy rate in Canada hit 17.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2023, an all-time high, says CBRE Group Inc. High vacancies have implications for businesses that traditionally serve office workers, such as dry cleaners, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s also worrisome for commercial real estate investors, including the big pension funds, such as the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
Office real estate impacts aside, Ferreira says the move to work from home hasn’t hurt productivity at National Bank. Those eschewing the office agree, saying their productivity hasn’t declined and some even say they’re working better and getting more done at home, the Angus Reid study says. Still, all that time offsite doesn’t come without negative consequences. For example, relationships with colleagues seem to have suffered. Four in five people who work primarily in the office say their connections with co-workers are good or great, but only half of those working from home say the same.
What seems clear is that the debate over the pros and cons of remote work will rage on until the power shifts back to employers from the hands of employees. Labour shortages make it difficult for many executives to push for a fuller return to the office, with the costs of hiring and training new employees outweighing the drawbacks of allowing remote work to continue. But power shifts are possible, since some economists predict a recession and a weakening labour market. Such a dynamic is already playing out in the tech sector, where companies that were among the first to jump to a remote-work model are now ordering staff back to the office amid industry-wide cost cuts and layoffs.
But if the government concedes on enshrining strong remote work policies in union contracts, expect private-sector unions to follow suit. “A successful strike by PSAC members can have a domino effect,” says Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., in reference to wages. It would be naive to think that effect won’t extend to continued flexibility on where people work.