As soon as her company told employees they would have to return to the office part time, Amanda Nilsson started looking for a new job.
“When they started mandating three days, I knew the writing was on the wall,” said the senior accountant who worked for a Toronto-based real-estate company. She says she felt it would be only a matter of time before three days in the office became four or five.
“I could understand why they were pushing to bring people back in the office,” said Nilsson. “But at the same time I have to do what’s in my best interests as well.”
More companies are asking workers to return to the office — for at least a few days a week — after Labour Day, citing better communication, increased productivity and a stronger company culture for the shift. But workers aren’t convinced.
After years of working from home, employees like Nilsson are pushing back because they say that the option to work remotely affords them a better quality of life.
“Once a bell has been rung, it cannot be unrung,” said McMaster University human resources and management professor Catherine Connelly.
“And once employees have had an opportunity [to] work from home, they’re going to continue to expect to be allowed to do that in the future.”
Within a month of starting her search, Nilsson had two offers from employers offering more remote work flexibility. She said she doesn’t see herself applying for any job that mandates a number of days worked in the office ever again.
“I’m exercising twice a day. I’m running five days a week. My husband’s also fully remote, so I get to spend more time with him and with our dog,” said Nilsson.
“The quality of my life had improved so much over the last three years of remote work that I just — I wasn’t ready to give that up.”
One-size-fits-all approach ‘a mistake,’ says professor
Some of the world’s largest tech companies have recently begun calling their employees back to the office. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, told workers in June that they’re expected to return to their offices three days a week starting Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Amazon shared with CBC News comments made by CEO Andy Jassy during a pre-recorded Q&A meeting last month. Jassy told employees who defy the company’s three-days-a-week policy that their future at Amazon probably wouldn’t work out. He added that it wasn’t right for some employees to be in the office while others weren’t.
More than 20,000 Amazon workers signed a petition urging the company to reconsider its mandate earlier this year.
Even Zoom — the video-calling software company that skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic and made it easier for many companies to conduct meetings remotely — asked employees who live within an 80-kilometre radius of its offices to work in-person twice a week. Some workers weren’t happy about it.
“Sometimes the way they [employers] think they can be fair is to have a very one-size-fits-all approach,” said Connelly. That could mean mandating all employees come in on a certain day, or a set number of days, each week.
“I think that’s usually a mistake.”
A survey conducted by the Angus Reid institute in February — when the tight labour market was weighed in favour of employees — asked workers what they would do if their employer mandated a return to the office.
Of the 1,622 Canadian adults surveyed, 36 per cent of respondents said they would return full time, while 31 per cent said they would go back to the office but start looking for a new job. A fifth of respondents said they would likely quit or look for a new job immediately. The survey results are considered accurate within 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Connelly said that employees who want to leave a company because of its return-to-office policy have more remote work options than ever — especially because they are no longer limited by borders when it comes to finding a new job.
“It’s not just the competitor across the street. It could be the competitor at the other end of the province,” she said. Employees working either fully remote or fully in-person are still in the minority, she added.
Vancouver CEO says office is ‘like a ghost town’
One Vancouver company is going to try bringing in all employees on the same day every week.
Marcus New, the CEO of investment company InvestX Capital, said the firm of 30 employees is starting a return-to-work initiative he calls “Together Tuesdays” on Sept. 12.
While every employee near the company’s Vancouver and New York offices is already asked to work in the office part-time — three days a week for managers and two for everyone else — all workers will be expected to go to the office on Tuesdays. Some others still work remotely in locations where the company doesn’t have offices.
New says the company gave guidance around in-person work four to five months ago, preferring not to call it a mandate. But with a smattering of people currently coming in on different days, “it’s like a ghost town,” said New.
“We’re missing the ability for people to connect, solve problems faster, to run into each other,” he said. The company will review the guidelines in December.
But New says that the days of rigid structures around in-person work are behind us.
“I think that world’s over,” he said.
‘I need to be present’
Shama Kumar, a parent in Brampton, Ont., is inclined to agree.
The ability to work from home was advertised as a perk when Kumar began working as a manager for a company in the social work sector last year. She was looking forward to the flexibility, especially because it would give her more time with her eight-year-old son.
Then in February and March, the company began pushing employees to return to the office full-time, but didn’t explain why they were making the switch, Kumar said. So, she quit the job.
“When I didn’t have a child, I had no problem working as late as anyone wanted me to. But once you have a child, you have responsibilities. You have to put them first,” she said.
Kumar said she was determined to find a company that would suit her needs. Within a month of searching, she found a new job and works remotely once or twice a week. While she’s open to working extra hours and on weekends, she wants the option to do it from home.
“I only have one son,” she said. “I need to be present with him because these are the most precious years.”