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Speculation swirls around the lasting impact of the pandemic and the resulting public health responses on workers and the future of work. As Canada enters a post-pandemic period, how is work changing? To help workers and employers navigate the next step, it is vital to understand how work was experienced during COVID.

So far, the growing body of research on the pandemic’s affect on work and workers focuses on other countries, particularly the United States. In Canada, a fine-grained analysis of how workers experienced the pandemic has been missing. The current economic uncertainties Canadians face make such an analysis even more essential for our working future.

Our Shaping the Future of Work in Canada Survey (FWCS), conducted in the fall of 2022, fills this gap. The survey drew on a random sample of over 5,800 employed and self-employed Canadians aged 18 and over who participated in the workforce at any time since March 2020. It documents workers’ experiences, job quality and well-being during the pandemic. It also measures their future work preferences, expectations and plans.

Three key findings stand out.

First, those who worked from home found considerable job satisfaction and a strong sense of well-being. Second, many remote workers realized they could work anywhere and as a result felt less of an attachment to their employer. Finally, employers need to involve their workers in any return-to-work plans to create an environment they’ll want to return to.

Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, over 40 per cent of workers surveyed currently or until recently worked from home, while another 25 per cent worked from home for several months. Just over one-third did not work from home.

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Those working from home are typically well-educated knowledge workers. Between 70 and 90 per cent of workers in sciences, government services, business and finance, education, law, social services, management, and arts, culture and recreation worked remotely. The exception was in health care, where many professionals continued to provide in-person services in an increasingly strained system.

Most remote workers reported a high annual household income (81 per cent had incomes higher than $160,000), and consistent with this, 82 per cent identified as “upper class.” Just over three quarters have an undergraduate degree and 84 per cent hold post-graduate degrees. Compared to non-remote workers, more home-based workers are in permanent full-time jobs or are self employed.

The pandemic accentuated existing labour market and social inequalities. Those working from home had more positive work experiences and better job quality than those who continued to work at their employer’s worksite.

Remote workers, compared to those working at their employer’s worksite, reported greater satisfaction with specific features of their job – often by more than 10 percentage points. For example, between 70 per cent and 83 per cent of home-based workers were satisfied or very satisfied with the respect they received from co-workers, independence, how they go about doing their work, job security, work-family balance and doing meaningful work.

The effect of the pandemic on Canadians’ well-being, particularly mental health, has been a prominent concern. But have all workers experienced it in the same way? This survey offers a far more nuanced assessment. As figure 1 shows, those who worked remotely are more satisfied with their jobs and their lives, feel more hopeful and have better self-rated mental health and overall well-being than non-remote workers.

In addition to these psychological benefits, remote workers also reported improved personal and family benefits such as reduced commuting time and costs. Very few reported being less productive. However, some raised concerns about remote work’s potential negative impact on training, mentoring and career opportunities (figure 2).

Respondents were also asked if they expected their personal financial situation to be better, worse, or the same in the coming year, and in the next five years. On both points, remote workers expressed more positive financial expectations.

Yet, while remote work enhanced workers’ job quality and overall well-being, it also appears to have weakened the employment relationship. Looking ahead, employers should be concerned that 42 per cent of home-based workers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Remote work has shown me that I can work anywhere and, as a result, I feel less attached to a specific organization or employer.” This reinforces the need for employers to consult with employees on possible return to work plans.

When asked about future work arrangements, 76 per cent of remote workers indicated that they would prefer to work remotely all or most of the time. Only four per cent did not want to continue working from home. This finding has direct implications for employers’ recruitment and retention strategies  as well as planning their post-pandemic work arrangements.

These findings also highlight for employers the need to provide all employees with meaningful input into post-pandemic work plans. Employers who succeed in doing this are more likely to build a loyal and committed workforce. Most employers have a long way to go in this regard. Only half of home-based workers in Canada had been consulted about their future work arrangements. And only 40 per cent were satisfied with their input into the post-pandemic work plans (figure 3). Even fewer non-remote workers (35 per cent) were satisfied.

Employers who engage in consultations about the future should reap significant benefits. Consider that amongst those who did have input, 86 per cent reported being satisfied with their jobs, and 73 per cent said they were unlikely to switch careers. Only about one-third of those satisfied with input would seek another job if asked to return to the workplace compared with 58 per cent of those dissatisfied.

In short, a key lesson from workers’ experiences during the pandemic is that employers must foster open and meaningful two-way communication with employees and then respond appropriately. By doing so, they will signal to employees that they care about them and can be trusted – essential features of a positive culture that supports employee well-being and job performance.

Employers also need to address the issues of job quality and well-being. This may require redesigned human resource strategies. This way the diverse needs of all workers – both remote and non-remote – can be achieved.

The Shaping the Future of Work in Canada Survey (FWCS) was conducted using EKOS Research Associates’ unique, hybrid online/telephone research panel, Probit. This panel offers extensive coverage of the Canadian population (i.e., Internet, phone, cell phone), random recruitment (in other words, participants are recruited randomly, they do not opt themselves into our panel) and equal probability sampling. All respondents to the panel are recruited by telephone using random digit dialing and are confirmed by live interviewers. Unlike opt-in online panels, Probit supports margin of error estimates. The field dates for the FWCS were September 9 to October 4, 2022. A random sample of 5,869 Canadians aged 18 and over who participated in the workforce at any time since March 2020 responded to the survey. This included employees and the self-employed. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 1.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. All data have been statistically weighted by age, gender and region based on the proportions of employed people from the 2016 census to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada.

The FWCS research methodology and questionnaire were approved by research ethics boards at the University of Alberta and Toronto Metropolitan University. Further details of the survey and questions can be obtained from karen.hughes@ualberta.ca. The project is funded by the Future Skills Centre and conducted by the multidisciplinary Future of Work research consortium. Members include Graham Lowe, Merv Gilbert, Karen D. Hughes, Frank Graves (EKOS Research Associates), Jim Stanford (Centre for Future Work) and Pamela Sugiman (Toronto Metropolitan University).

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Graham Lowe

Graham Lowe is president of the The Graham Lowe Group Inc. a workplace consulting firm, and a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. His publications include Creating Healthy Organizations (Rotman/UTP Publishing), Redesigning Work (Rotman/UTP Publishing), and The Quality of Work: A People-Centered Agenda (Oxford University Press).

Merv Gilbert

Merv Gilbert is director of Vancouver Psych Health + Safety Consulting.

Karen D. Hughes

Karen D. Hughes is a professor in the department of sociology and the Alex Hamilton Professor of Business at the University of Alberta.

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