On April 1, 2021, Statistics Canada released a report regarding working from home and worker productivity. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant increase in telework that has taken place since mid-March 2020, the report focused on questions involving the extent of productivity, barriers to productivity, and preferences concerning post-pandemic work. The purpose was to glean information about the sustainability of telework in a post COVID-19 context.
The study examined employees who were aged 15 to 64 and who were new teleworkers (they used to work outside the home before the COVID-19 pandemic, but then they worked most of their hours at home). In addition, the analysis included employees who were with the same employer since at least March 2019 (at least one year prior to the economic lockdown of mid-March 2020).
Here were some of the main findings:
- Extent of productivity. Most (90 percent) reported being at least as productive (accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home) as they did before in their usual place of work. More specifically, 58 percent said that they accomplished about the same amount of work per hour, 32 percent reported accomplishing more work per hour, and 10 percent stated that they accomplished less work per hour while working at home than they did previously in their usual place of work. These findings were the same for men and women. Interestingly, industry type was significant—the percentage of new teleworkers reporting doing more work per hour was relatively high in public administration (41 percent) and health care and social assistance (45 percent). On the other hand, the percentage was lower in goods-producing industries (31 percent) and educational services (25 percent).
- Barriers. Employees who reported doing less work per hour experienced certain barriers to productivity. For instance, 22 percent reported a lack of interaction with co-workers as the main reason why they accomplished less work per hour. Moreover, about 20 percent reported having to care for children or other family members. There were also other barriers, including accessing work-related information or devices (11 percent), having to do additional work to get things done (13 percent), having an inadequate physical workspace (10 percent), or experiencing difficulty with internet speed (5 percent).
- Preferences. Many (80 percent) stated that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over. More specifically, 41 percent indicated that they would prefer working about half of their hours at home and the other half elsewhere, 39 percent preferred working most (24 percent) or all (15 percent) of their hours at home, and 20 percent said that they would prefer working most (11 percent) or all (9 percent) of their hours outside the home. What the foregoing suggests is that there is a striking diversity of preferences. And workers’ assessments of the amount of work they performed per hour was a strong predictor of their preferences for telework. Interestingly, it was discovered that teachers were the most likely to prefer working most or all of their hours outside the home—at 54 percent, this constituted about three times the percentage observed for other employees.
What can employers take from this report?
The report points out that there are a few factors that could influence whether telework persists after the pandemic.
In particular, employees would have to be as productive at home as they were in the office, and they would also have to express strong preferences for telework in a post-COVID-19 context. As well, employers would have to be willing and able to accommodate employees’ demand for telework.
It appears that some of these conditions have been met—when it comes to accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as in the office, and preferring to work at least half of the hours from home after the pandemic.
And the barriers that lead to reduced productivity at home, especially inadequate physical workspace and the need to take care of children and other family members, could be reduced gradually as schools fully re-open and employers provide further tools to make telework more practicable.
An important question remains with respect to employers’ ability to accommodate the diversity of employee preferences for telework. This may present a considerable challenge for employers, and flexibility may be the key.