Jack Knox: Are the wheels falling off the work-from-home bus?

It’s the Labour Day weekend. Labour as in time to go back to work — which, for many people these days means popping open a laptop on the kitchen counter.

If there has been one revelation during the pandemic, it’s the whole work-from-home thing. Five million Canadians began doing so in late March, raising the total number of COVID-haired, sweatpants-wearing (or not!), unshaven telecommuters to 40 per cent of the nation’s workforce, according to Statistics Canada.

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Bosses hated the idea at first. They feared that if left unsupervised, we would devote our working hours to doing laundry, drinking gin and watching Days Of Our Lives. Which we did, though thanks to all the time we saved once freed from traditional workplace pursuits – commuting, gossiping, napping during meetings, getting dragged into office dramas, enjoying furtive liaisons in the supply closet – we still managed to get our jobs done, too. To the surprise of employees and employers alike, things played out just fine. Productivity didn’t suffer.

Suddenly, business owners began wondering why they hadn’t shooed their people home years ago. They looked around their empty, cavernous offices and wondered if they really needed to furnish, heat, clean and pay the mortgage/lease/property taxes for all that space. Pandemic, shmandemic, let’s make working remotely a permanent thing.

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea, though. For one thing, we’re seeing a societal schism, a split between the four in 10 workers who StatsCan estimates could feasibly do their jobs from home and those who, in order to put food on the table, must pull on PPEs and wade into the pestilential swamp. Some people, mostly white-collar types, get to work in their bathrobes, while others have to dress up like Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.

Increasingly, the separation can be geographical, too. Last week, Bloomberg reported the emergence of red-hot real estate markets in attractive U.S. small towns as telecommuters awaken to the notion that they can flee the cities for places where the coronavirus feels less present and tents are synonymous with recreation, not social decay.

Some may go even farther: After re-opening its borders in mid-July, Barbados tantalized foreigners with an offer to let them live in and work from the Caribbean island for up to a year, as long as they make at least $50,000 US annually and are willing to pay a $2,000 fee.

Given that Barbados has registered roughly the same number as COVID cases as Vancouver Island, and that February temperatures are typically 20 degrees warmer than they are here in the land of gumboots and Gore-Tex, that option might be tempting to a new breed of snowbird.

Added bonus: they won’t get punched in the throat by the resentful people who spend their days toiling behind Plexiglas.

The thing is, is working from home really a long-term solution? After six months of a more or less successful conversion to remote employment, we’re seeing signs the wheels are falling off the bus.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece warned the picture isn’t as bright as first painted. “As the work-from-home experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge,” it said. “Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.”

Likewise, Forbes weighed in with a commentary headed: “Working from home is disliked by and bad for most employees, researchers say.” It cited long hours, blurred lines between private and professional lives and declines in mental health.

Not mentioned by either publication is another pitfall: the probability of being divorced/fired by family members who may not appreciate being relegated to the role of colleague in a workplace that — silly them — they had thought of as their home. It seems that spending every single moment of every single day isolated with some of us is not as exciting a bonus as we assumed it would be, particularly when we’re in work mode.

Also, when this behaviour is brought to our attention, the proper response is not A) “Take it up with HR,” B) an emailed calendar invitation for a 3 p.m. Zoom meeting on Wednesday, or C) the issuance of a memo in which family members are urged to “pull together as a team in these unprecedented times.” Do that, and there’s a chance you won’t have a home from which to work.

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