Why employers may need to bend toward a more flexible future to stay competitive

Business

The long-term provision of flexible work will remain a key draw for employees in Canada's future economy and also for organizations looking to retain their services, employers and experts say.

Ross Simmonds, the founder and CEO of Foundation Marketing, is a strong proponent of remote working. He has employees as far away as Ireland and Nigeria.(Submitted by Ross Simmonds)

You don't have to convince Ross Simmonds about the benefits of remote work.

The founder and CEO of Foundation Marketing has been leading the way on that front, running his business as "remote first" since it started in 2014.

While the company may officially be based in Halifax, it employs team members as far away as Ireland and Nigeria.

"I like to say we're based on the internet," said Simmonds, whose 30-plus staff also includes people in the U.S. and a half-dozen Canadian provinces.

The long-term provision of more flexible work will remain a key draw for employees in Canada's future economy and also for organizations looking to retain their services, employers and experts say.

It's already the case in a COVID-altered work world that millions of Canadians are used to doing things differently and don't necessarily want to go back to the way things were.

"Workers, at this point, who work online have come to expect to be able to continue to work online," said Eddy Ng, the Smith Professor of Equity & Inclusion in Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Talent retention

Some Canadian employers are factoring this reality into their thinking as they shape their approach to their business.

Megan Smith, the head of HR for SAP Canada, says organizations that want to attract the best talent are going to have to offer some degree of flexible work arrangements for their employees.(Submitted by Megan Smith)

At software giant SAP Canada, the organization is bending toward a more flexible future — one that many employers will have to contend with as they compete for talent, said SAP Canada vice-president and head of HR Megan Smith.

"Most talent, at this point, expects some degree of flexibility in where and when they work," Smith said. "So organizations that really want to attract the best talent are going to want to offer some degree of that."

Simmonds said it's already clear people are moving toward jobs that provide that.

Foundation Marketing has been fielding inquiries about job opportunities from people at other companies who have been told they are going back to the office.

"That's when we see a spike for the number of applicants applying for our roles," said Simmonds.

Binod Sundararajan, the interim director of Dalhousie University's Rowe School of Business, said companies are weighing what they are going to get by bringing people back to the office, including the impact on corporate culture.(Submitted by Binod Sundararajan)

Binod Sundararajan, the interim director of Dalhousie University's Rowe School of Business, said companies are weighing what they are "going to get by bringing people back," including the impact on corporate culture.

But that consideration is taking place amid an awareness that they have workers who want more flexibility, he said.

Varying preferences

Canada has more than four million people working at home, according to Statistics Canada's latest labour force survey. That group would include many people whose remote work experience began with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Candido, the founder and principal of the Toronto-based Candido Consulting Group, has observed a shifting set of employee preferences over the course of the pandemic.

Janet Candido, a Toronto-based HR consultant, says that at this point in the pandemic, there's a demand for flexibility in work arrangements among those people who have been working at home.(Submitted by Janet Candido)

At the start, Candido heard employees expressing a strong desire to be able to work at home. Then some people found the home-work environment tough to adjust to, she said.

"Now that pendulum seems to have swung back, where people really do want not necessarily to work remotely all the time," said Candido. "They want the flexibility now."

But Candido, too, notes she has seen people leaving their jobs in recent months because they found a new employer that permits remote work.

Meanwhile, Simmonds said he's seen organizations that are trying to implement a blend of office and remote work — a development he views as "a good step forward."

When flexibility is offered to workers, Simmonds said, it's key to convey to people they won't be "viewed negatively" for preferring a remote setup, if that's what works best for them.

"Don't be afraid to go hybrid, but in doing so, don't discipline those who do not embrace fully coming back to the office," he said.

Less commuting, more options

The more traditional a company's working arrangements, the more limited its hiring choices may be — at least when compared to organizations offering more flexible options.

"If you need everybody to come into the office, they need to be [living] within commuting distance," said Candido.

That lack of a commute is one of the reasons Simmonds favoured remote work for Foundation Marketing. He thought others would feel the same way.

"I had a hypothesis that there was a lot of other people out there in the world who would get a lot of value for not having to do the commute and not having to work in an office building," Simmonds said.

He said he also believed "it would be a competitive advantage to be able to be fully remote, because you would be able to attract some of the brightest and greatest minds, with no limit to their location."

What about those left behind

There are, however, many workers for whom remote work won't be an option in future — and not only because of the jobs they currently have.

Because to move to a job that can be done remotely, a person has to have a certain set of baseline digital skills that may not be easily acquired outside of a work or school context.

Eddy Ng is the Smith Professor of Equity & Inclusion in Business at Queen's University.(Submitted by Eddy Ng)

"If they want to be part of the remote economy, they have to have new skills," said Ng, noting this is a long-term problem that policy-makers have failed to solve.

And while some may see remote work as having potential to help alleviate some barriers for these workers, Ng said the reality is very different.

"The availability of workers who are underrepresented is simply not there," said Ng, explaining these same people are often in jobs that do "not permit them to actually retrain or retool."

There's a need for employers to take a long-term view, Ng said, and be willing to invest in people to help them gain the broader skills required to move toward new employment.

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