Remote vs. onsite? In this great collision, no one is right; everyone is right

By: Kathryn Tremblay

Imagine if we all agreed on everything all the time. We liked the same things, read the same books and worked in the same way.

Where’s the spice in that life? The food for thought?

When I think of the collision we’re seeing today between remote vs. onsite work—the great experiment we’re all living through—I consider the many compelling ideas and viewpoints on both sides of the fence, and an old adage comes to mind: Maybe it’s best to politely agree to disagree.

After all, how can there be only one work model when we’re all so different? We work at different jobs in different ways; we’re at varying stages of our careers; we’re introverts and extroverts; some of us have small children and elderly parents to care for at home; we’re “morning people” or nighthawks; and we either like quiet spaces for reflection or loud workplaces for collaboration.

Employees are not one-size-fits-all, so how can we, as employers, create one workplace that works for everyone?

My five questions for employers

As we all navigate this great experiment and look to develop our future-focused workplace models, I encourage employers in my network to consider five questions:

  1. In today’s tight labour market, where are you going to recruit your new hires for hard-to-fill jobs? (Throughout the pandemic, many candidates moved from large centres like Toronto and Montreal to smaller communities across Canada.)
  2. How do you define trust between the employer and employee and how can you deepen it?
  3. Would you extend a counteroffer to keep a valuable employee who is leaving for a remote position?
  4. When it comes to flexibility, consider what can you tolerate as a firm. Can you push yourself to this limit?
  5. If the work can be done remotely, what is driving the requirement to be onsite? With recent surveys indicating growing satisfaction with remote work among employees who can do so, could it be that those calling for a return to office are likewise those who prefer to work onsite?

Since every workplace, employer and employee is different, I can hardly advise on what’s “right” when it comes to remote vs. onsite work. I can only step back, observe the compelling viewpoints on both sides and continue to learn as this great collision continues to unfold.

Here are some of my observations.

Why bring them back?

The most obvious reason: Many jobs can only be done in the workplace (60% of Canadian employees work onsite) and many workers prefer this model.

Aside from these kinds of roles, the reasons for calling workers back to the office vary:

  • Collaboration, innovation and creativity are some of the most common reasons given for bringing employees back onsite, with some employers convinced that all these things happen more easily in person. Maybe they do. I noticed that post-Labour Day, with no signs of a mass voluntary return to the office, many Canadian companies shifted to a more deliberate hybrid model where they either mandate a certain number of days onsite or ask that teams “start coming together in person more often to work and collaborate,” as RBC president and CEO Dave McKay recently wrote.
  • Other reasons include teamwork and culture, which many feel are strongest in an in-person setting. Perhaps they’re right.
  • And then there’s the issue of empty office space. Why pay to keep the lights on if no one’s there? Data from Avison Young shows that foot traffic in office buildings in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this July was still almost 55% below what it was before the pandemic hit. That’s a lot of empty desks…and a lot fewer coffees, lunches and snacks purchased from downtown businesses, many of which are struggling to stay open, another reason city mayors cite to encourage workers to head back to the office.

Why hybrid or remote?

Among our clients, we’re seeing a roughly 25/50/25 distribution among their teams when it comes to those who prefer fully onsite, hybrid or fully remote. (On my own team, we’re seeing a 5/20/75 distribution of fully onsite, hybrid or fully remote.)

The reasons for hybrid or remote are likewise varied and include:

  • Following the talent: As noted above, during the pandemic, many candidates moved out of major urban centres to smaller communities where the housing is less expensive. A remote model enables employers to hire from untapped talent pools, engaging new home-based employees across Canada who live in smaller communities or in cities where they might not have a physical office.
  • Increased engagement: When considering today’s record-high labour shortage (Canada has the smallest working-age cohort since the 1960s) and record-low unemployment numbers (according to BMO, Canada’s vacancies outnumber unemployed workers for the first time since tracking began in 2015), retention is high on the list of priorities for many employers and offering flexible work could be one way to keep your talent engaged. According to our recent pulse check-in, 87% of our employees saw themselves working at our company in 2 years, an important metric that we measure regularly.
  • Mental health and wellbeing: According to LifeWorks’ May 2022 report, the 24% of Canadian employees who say their manager prefers full-time onsite work are coincidentally those who report the lowest mental health score. For many workers trying to balance work and life, having the option of hybrid or remote work has helped boost their mental health.

What about the looming recession?

I’ve read that some employers believe a looming recession will have a calming effect on the tight job market, discouraging employees from switching jobs if they’re asked to return to office. While we’re seeing signs of a slowdown and growing layoffs, particularly in the tech sector, based on my personal experience with three major recessions in 33 years, it feels different this time.

The economy may cool down, the government may reduce spending and employers may cut back on hiring – but will we suddenly have all the employees we need? I don’t think so. The shortage of talent is so deep, I think there will still be a high demand for highly skilled workers combined with a historically low supply. So, retention will still be an issue.

As we head into a busy fall, I’m looking forward to observing the constant evolution of our employment market and answering some of the questions above.

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