Remote work is here to stay, survey of Canadian businesses shows

Most Canadian business owners say they will continue to allow employees to work from home after the pandemic, a significant shift as more workers increasingly seek flexibility in their jobs.

According to a new survey conducted by BDC, 74 per cent of small-to-medium enterprise (SMEs) owners say they will allow employees to continue working from home after the pandemic. At the same time, 55 per cent of employees say they would prefer working remotely just as much or more than they did through the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Before the pandemic, there was not a lot of appetite from business owners to allow employees to work remotely," BDC vice-president and chief economist Pierre Cléroux said in an interview.

"There was some remote work before, but nothing compared to what's going on now, with (more than 40) per cent of Canadians working from home. So we were surprised to see that such a large percentage of SME owners said they will encourage that after the pandemic."

BDC surveyed 724 small business owners and 2,000 workers between February and March about the rise of remote work. Before the pandemic, just 21 per cent of small business owners allowed their employees to work from home. Now, that figure is up to 42 per cent, with employees working an average of 3.9 days per week from home.

Cléroux says two developments through the pandemic have helped shift business owners' perspectives on remote work. First, the pandemic forced companies to invest in technology that would facilitate remote work. The experience over the last 12 months has also helped convince some formerly reluctant employers that the work-from-home model can work.

"A lot of Canadians have been working from home and the experience has actually been good," Cléroux said.

"On the employer side, they've seen improvements to employee retention, some businesses have reduced their costs and others told us it will be easier to hire people from different cities… those are some of the benefits."

The survey results are in contrast to decisions made by some corporate executives over a return to the office.

Some executives raised concerns in the early days of the pandemic about the pitfalls of the work-from-home boom. Goldman Sachs executive David Solomon called remote working "an aberration" that he plans on correcting as soon as possible. Many others, including Citrix CEO David Henshall, see a hybrid workplace as the way of the future, allowing employees to work from home but come into the office for certain tasks.

More than half of the Canadian employees surveyed by BDC say they would prefer to work remotely as much or more than they do now. In fact, 54 per cent say that the ability to work remotely would be a determining factor when it comes to accepting a new job. Employees cite reduced commuting time as the top benefit of working from home (84 per cent), followed by flexible working hours (62 per cent) and improved work-life balance (58 per cent).

Cléroux expects the work-from-home option will be a key offering for employees, especially if a tight labour market develops.

"I think employers will have to offer it, especially if we are back to where we were before the pandemic and we have a shortage of labour," he said.

"It may get more and more difficult to recruit people in that context. So you need to make sure you can attract new employees."

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

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