Three years into the widespread adoption of remote work, its impact on the Canadian worker has, according to University of Waterloo sociologist Kim de Laat, been “uneven.”
Speaking at the inaugural Policy Talks series on March 6th in Toronto, de Laat and her fellow panellists had a short but lively discussion on the current state of work, and the challenges and opportunities of moving to remote for Canadian businesses, workers, and policymakers.
“I was into remote work before it was cool.”
– Kim de Laat,
University of Waterloo
On one hand, remote work has delivered a series of advantages for workers. De Laat’s 2019 research has shown that women in particular are satisfied with the arrangement, as remote work has allowed for a balance of childcare and housework. Working digitally has given caregivers “another tool in their toolkit” to manage work and life. At the same time, men who work from home are picking up the slack at home, and the “parenting gap” is closing.
However, it hasn’t all been gains for remote workers. Sam Andrey of the TMU Lead Lab noted that, of 2000 Canadians recently surveyed, most feel their connections have been worsened by remote work. There is also some evidence that there are career penalties for remote workers, and a wage gap is emerging between those that work in person and those that work remotely in hybrid workplaces. Stress is on the rise too, as the lines between home and work get more and more blurred.
Remote work could help alleviate Canada's housing crisis by reducing demand in our largest cities.
Suburban house price appreciation was significant in first year of pandemic, particularly for housing 50+ KMs from downtown cores. pic.twitter.com/pDQ38HgAKC
— Sunil Johal (@JohalSunil) March 5, 2023
Another serious contributor to stress has been the rise of workplace surveillance and boss ware. Thirty percent of Canadians admitted to being surveilled at work. In response, an entire cottage industry of online “spoofing” tools has popped up to serve this new market of workers trying to dodge their companies’ monitoring software. The oddest thing about this back and forth is that the same research noted most supervisors and employees were aligned that remote work hasn’t adversely affected productivity levels, RBC CEO Dave McKay’s recent comments to the contrary notwithstanding.
When it comes to addressing some of these inequities, Sunil Johal of CSA Group remarked that typical policy responses have been “challenging.” Johal noted that the experience of remote work varies substantially between different types of businesses, locations, and industries, and argued that not everything can be hit with the “same hammer.” Instead, a “floor” should be established for certain issues.
“[Remote work] is challenging for policy response—we’re hitting everything with the same hammer.”
– Sunil Johal,
A good example of this, said de Laat, is universal childcare policies. She noted that expanding programs like childcare will continue to reduce barriers to labour force participation for women and parents and open remote work options to more. The University of Waterloo assistant professor also argued that Canada needs a more coherent response to the creep of workplace monitoring, and governments would be smart to get ahead of many of these issues—in her eyes, recent right-to-disconnect legislation is a good start, but more needs to be done here.
More broadly, the panel discussed how remote work is transforming the economy and, in many ways, acting as a continued driver of income inequality. While remote work has spread housing demand across the country, it’s also exported challenges to communities that aren’t always prepared for them. As remote workers search for cheaper housing markets, panellists noted how this has also highlighted how much Canada’s digital infrastructure continues to lag behind. 60% of rural communities in this country lack reliable access to broadband internet.
However, as Johal pointed out, Canada can be a leader in remote work by investing in social infrastructure in addition to the digital. A recent report from the CSA noted that workers are attracted not just to high-speed internet, but things like schools, culture, and welcoming communities, creating opportunities for remote work to alleviate Canada’s housing crisis by reducing demand in the country’s largest cities.
Policy Talks is a joint initiative between the CSA Public Policy Centre, McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program, Springboard Policy, TMU Leadership Lab and Brookfield Institute—the latter two organizations having announced a merger in January of this year. Policy Talks donated all event proceeds to the Canadian Red Cross – Earthquake in Türkiye & Syria Appeal.