Millions of Canadians are now well into their second year of working from home. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, non-essential employees began working from their couches, kitchens and bedrooms, hopping virtually from one endless video meeting to another. What began as a temporary arrangement, however, will likely change the way we do our jobs permanently: working from home has its challenges, but it has enough upsides that both workers and employers may be reluctant to go back to the old ways. If this happens, we must ensure that this shift does not widen workplace inequalities.
Not all workers are equally likely to have been working from home during the pandemic. The shift was easier for people with office jobs, for instance, than for those in retail. Workers with permanent, full-time, higher-paid jobs are also more likely than those with less secure, lower-paid positions to have been working from home. This is the first way in which the change has exacerbated inequality within Canadian society: more economically vulnerable workers also ended up more vulnerable to the virus owing to their need to be physically present at work. All Canadians have been urged to stay at home as much as possible during the pandemic, but their ability to do so is in large part a function of the types of jobs that they hold.
For many who made the transition from office desk to the kitchen table, the experience has generally been positive – perhaps surprisingly so. In our recent survey, more than three in five agree that working from home has been easier than expected, and they say they like working from home better than their regular workplace. The same proportion even say that working remotely has been less stressful than working in the office. So far, so good.
At the same time, more than two in five express concerns about juggling work and family responsibilities while working from home – they feel like they are constantly working and never have time for themselves or their families. One in three find it impossible to do their job well while working from home.
It will shock no one that these stresses are most acutely experienced by parents of young children. Three in five of those caring for young children say they worry that they can’t be a good parent and be good at their job at the same time while working from home.
Younger workers, immigrants, racialized people, Indigenous workers and workers with a physical or mental condition that limits their daily activity are also more likely to experience challenges working from home. Most notably, each of these groups is more likely than average to worry that working from home will have a negative impact on their career. These workers may be less securely employed, and therefore more concerned about the longer-term consequences of being physically distant from their workplaces.
What’s notable, though, is that many of those experiencing challenges with working from home nonetheless feel positive about the arrangement overall. In fact, seven in 10 of those who have been working at home say that once the pandemic is over, their employer should continue to allow them to work remotely at least a few days a week. Clearly, workers are likely to expect greater flexibility from employers from now on.
All of this puts the onus to act back on employers and policy makers alike. It is not enough to pick up on the current zeitgeist and consider offering more flexible working arrangements once all lockdowns have been lifted. This experience should bring with it an obligation to ensure that new arrangements do not simply place further disadvantages on those already less connected to the centres of power.
Coming out of the events of the past year, we must renew our resolve to tackle persistent inequalities. This includes confronting the higher risks faced by front-line workers, the bigger challenges for those combining work and family responsibilities, and the greater barriers facing minority groups. New working arrangements will need new infrastructure, new policies, new supports, new ways of thinking about work and new skills for both employee and managers. These changes must now be made, not only in the context of physical offices and places of business, but in virtual ones as well.