WFH?! Does work from home actually… work?

Posted on January 02, 2023 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments

 

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Last Fall, lawyer Amanda Nash received a number of calls from managers and employers across Atlantic Canada. Her callers were business leaders in all types of fields, with all types of backgrounds, and all were full of questions and problems related to “work from home” arrangements.

A management-side labour and employment law specialist with McInnes Cooper, Nash appreciates that part-time or full-time work from home (WFH) options—as opposed to having to be physically present in a corporate office—are valuable to many employees. She, herself, left her office to go on maternity leave in 2019. When she returned to work, it was primarily out of her home office; She’s continued there, with the support of her employer.

In 2021, she co-presented an online workshop on the subject of the hybrid workspace with a colleague, who was co-presenting from his home in Halifax. “I think it was a little bit of an eye opener when I said to (colleague Michael Murphy), for me personally, if the flexibility wasn’t there, the alternative may have been leaving private practice,” she told Atlantic Business Magazine. She says the ability to work from home has been “life altering” in her case.

Even though she’s a fan, Nash warns employers there are potential pitfalls and risks tied to WFH arrangements. She says employers need to pay attention to the details because there are associated demands and considerations that are not always obvious. But despite increasing public warnings over the past year from Nash (and others), many employers have failed to put their company’s WFH practices under serious review.

“I still find that people are being a little bit reactive. They call and say things like: ‘There’s been a privacy breach. We’ve come to realize this employee has been working at their kitchen table and there’s no secure place in the home. So, because they haven’t formalized things, issues are arising,” she said.

Work from home surged out of necessity during the pandemic lockdowns, in some cases as an overnight emergency response. In 2020, Statistics Canada estimated about 40 per cent of us were working in jobs that could potentially be done from home. By January 2021, an estimated 32 per cent of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 were actively working most of their hours from home, compared to just four per cent in 2016. The WFH numbers bounced up and down as the pandemic ticked on, tied to waves of illness and public health orders.

Opinions on work from home have had a similar up and down trajectory, making it difficult to accurately assess its popularity or effectiveness. We do know, however, that since restrictions have eased, the number of people working from home hasn’t dropped back to pre-pandemic levels. While the number of people working from home full-time declined last year, it was in lock step with an increase in hybrid work arrangements that allowed work from home part-time. As of October 2022, according to the latest Statistics Canada labour force survey available prior to publication, more than 1.7 million Canadians were in hybrid work arrangements, or just under one in 10 workers (nine per cent).

Nash said employers, if they haven’t done so already, have to decide what their new “normal” work arrangements will be, and ensure they are managing accordingly.

For starters, it shouldn’t be assumed that WFH arrangements embraced during the pandemic are permanent. Employers have the authority to end work from home and recall employees to a central office. But the longer those alternative work scenarios continue to be used—particularly where companies haven’t clearly communicated that they are temporary—the muddier the waters will become on any “return to work” call. Over time, a company will increasingly risk having to defend against allegations of constructive dismissal (where the employer is deemed responsible for having ended the relationship based on their demand for time in the office).

Where is home?

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