From a strong labor market to the official downgrading of COVID-19’s status as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, signs are everywhere that the economy is recovering from the pandemic.

But in hollowed-out inner cities across the country, there is perhaps none clearer than the sight of millions of office workers returning to cities after working from home for much of the past three years.

The trend is undeniable. Cellphone data suggests Canadian cities are now about half as crowded with people during the workday as they were before the pandemic. That’s well above under 10 percent observed at various times since 2020, when the pandemic began and lockdowns were put in place.

While Canadian cities still lag behind the United States, some large employers are trying to do whatever they can to close the gap.

3 days a week

After Canada’s most valuable company, the Royal Bank of Canada, allowed its office workers to work from home during the pandemic, it took a big step by requiring its employees to work at least three days a week from May 1 Come office, cites productivity concerns.

“I think the lack of collaboration in many ways has led to productivity and innovation issues and society isn’t back together enough and not working enough,” said President and CEO Dave McKay, explaining the decision.

RBC isn’t the only company thinking this way. As of this week, e-commerce giant Amazon is doing the same thing, requiring virtually all employees to be in the office at least three days a week.

Getting thousands of people back into the office – some of whom have never been there because they were hired during the pandemic – is a complex problem, “so we’re going to give the teams that need to do this work some time to develop.” a plan,” said Andy Jassy, ​​Amazon President and CEO.

Mackenzie Irwin, an employment attorney at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto and Ottawa, thinks it’s wise because employers risk legal trouble if they force inappropriate changes to working conditions.

“You need to give your employees adequate time and lead time to make the necessary arrangements for the return,” she told CBC News in an interview.

CLOCK | Workers see pros and cons of working from home:

Workers weigh when returning to the office

In downtown Toronto, office workers this week shared with CBC News their thoughts on the pros and cons of returning to the office after working mostly from home during much of the pandemic.

Irwin said her office is being inundated with calls from employees hired during the pandemic who are now being asked to come into the office and learn their rights.

The bad news? For most workers, the employer has a very solid foundation when asking people to come back.

“For the majority of employees, if you started working remotely during the pandemic, your employer has the right to call you back to the office,” she said. “Unless your contract of employment specifically states that your position is remote, your employer has the right to recall you.”

Irwin said working from home during the pandemic has transformed the lives of workers — many of whom have been able to secure those gains by negotiating them in a contract when companies desperately needed staff.

“But now we’re seeing a shift where there’s a lot of downsizing and not a lot of hiring,” she said. “It may be that we get into a scenario where that leverage for employees is kind of lost.”

Right vs Privilege

Linda Duxbury, a professor of management and strategy at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, said the current furor over work-from-home boils down to a fundamental disagreement between workers and employers over whether it is a development that is good for the company as a whole, or just a benefit that some workers get and others don’t.

“After working from home for two or three years, a lot of people think it’s a right,” she said in an interview. “But many employers don’t see it as a right, they see it as a privilege.”

Duxbury said it’s important to remember that working from home is a moot point for most people, as most of them have jobs where it’s not possible. But for the rest, both sides dig in because they disagree on the goals.

“Before the pandemic, when employers talked about productivity, it really equated to working hours, being available 24/7, working, being visible, never saying no and so on,” she said in an interview.

Employees who thrive from working from home say they put in as many hours as before and their job output is the same, if not more, Duxbury said.

“But employers have changed the definition of productivity. Now they say it’s about creativity, innovation, social ties, culture.”

The problem for employers, she said, is that there is very little empirical evidence to support the theory that working in person is better for business – resulting in workers who meet and exceed the same work goals needlessly feel sorry to have to return to the office.

“We need to be able to have the discussion around productivity — not focus on hours and availability — focus on performance,” Duxbury said.


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