The Future of Remote Work, co-edited by Valerio De Stefano, an Osgoode Hall Law School professor and Canada Research Chair in Innovation, Law and Society, argues that companies forcing employees back to their offices to reinvigorate downtown economies are misguided.
The book, published by the independent, Brussels-based European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), includes more than 20 contributors from a variety of disciplines, including lawyers, economists and sociologists. The book’s other co-editors are: Nicola Contouris, a labour law professor at University College London and director of research for the institute; ETUI senior researcher Agnieszka Piasna, a labour sociologist; and labour lawyer Silvia Rainone, also an ETUI researcher.
“Remote work is here to stay,” insists De Stefano, “because it is beneficial for both employees and companies.”
According to Statistics Canada, the percentage of employed Canadians who work from home for all or part of their work week now stands at just over 25 per cent, down from a high of 40 per cent during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies, such as Royal Bank of Canada and Amazon Canada, have mandated their employees to return to the office for at least part of the week. But in a competitive job market, De Stefano believes that could backfire. Companies that want to retain talent will need to continue providing remote work options or risk losing their most talented people, he says.
But unlike the first panicked months of the pandemic, De Stefano thinks remote work going forward must differentiate itself from what he calls “lockdown work”: “If we want to reap the benefits of remote work, we have to get away from the constraints that we had under the pandemic and put more rigid boundaries between work and personal time.”
This, says De Stefano, will require giving employees more autonomy and creating a stronger spirit of trust between them and their employers.
In the early pandemic, he notes, remote work was sometimes accompanied by invasive surveillance software that often led to employee stress, anxiety and burnout. He believes this type of technology can actually reduce productivity, if workers end up wasting time trying to outsmart the system.
De Stefano says the rise of remote and hybrid work has brought distinct benefits, like helping companies trim their rental budgets, cutting the cost of commuting for workers and reducing the number of cars on the road. While the negative impact on downtown economies is real, he thinks it is imperative for cities to find creative solutions to their vacant office space dilemma.
“It would certainly be a loss to society if we decided to go back to a pre-pandemic scenario just because we don’t know what to do with our downtowns,” he says.