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COVID-19 could cause a permanent shift to working remotely

Education & Skills

By: Beth Robertson, Michael Burt

To limit the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told Canadians to stay home whenever possible. Numerous businesses and organizations have closed their offices, instituting remote work arrangements. As employers and employees alike navigate these extraordinary circumstances, it’s an opportune time to assess our capabilities for remote work and what it means for different people. As the limits of remote work are tested, COVID-19 may lead to permanent shifts in work arrangements.

Not all roles can be performed remotely. The most obvious ones that can are office-based. These would include managerial roles across all industries, as well as most jobs in sectors like federal and provincial governments, professional services, and financial services.

However, working from home is already typical for many other segments of the economy. For example, half of the people who work in agriculture work “at home” on family farms. Remote work is also common in industries ranging from e-commerce providers, to artists, to small-scale manufacturing. In aggregate, the most recent data suggest that nearly one in 10 people worked from home even before COVID-19.

The globalization of work, combined with emerging tech and mobile devices, meant that more people and companies were already moving toward flexible work arrangements well before the pandemic. And this trend is only expected to grow after it’s all over. To put it another way, it’s not just disaster planning—it’s part of the future of work.

There is strong evidence that working remotely leads to enhanced work efficiency, job satisfaction, and positive mental health outcomes. But remote workers, like all employees, still require support and resources. Basic requirements include adequate access to company VPNs, telecommunication, and online sharing platforms. Supports should also include more systemic efforts, like company policies and practices that ensure equitable distribution of information, appropriate meeting preparations that permit equal participation, regular check-ins, and fair performance metrics. Also important are accessible reporting avenues through which remote employees can voice their concerns if they feel they’re not being given the right opportunities to succeed.

These supports become all the more important when working from home means taking care of children, or ill family members, alongside everyday work responsibilities—not to mention navigating the general anxiety brought about by a global pandemic. Working from home due to COVID-19, amid closed schools and reduced access to cultural and public spaces, presents additional challenges.

Beyond the traditional forms of remote work, many sectors are testing virtual delivery models to respond to COVID-19. A prominent example is education services. From primary school to university, educators are testing ways of engaging students to ensure that most of them can continue their academic studies to at least some degree. Not all classes—for example, many lab-based activities—can be conducted virtually, but academic institutions will learn from this experience. It will have implications for the delivery of education well after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

Other organizations and workers are also likely to learn from their COVID-19 experiences. The crisis may lead to a permanent increase in the use of remote work. If true, this would have wide-ranging effects. Some services, such as information technology providers, would likely benefit. Others, such as office space providers and mass transit carriers, would likely not. Understanding the long-term implications of these changes in behaviour will be critical as we shift from crisis to recovery.