The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the work-from-home trend in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, at the beginning of 2021, approximately 32% of Canadians were primarily working from home, compared to just 4% five years ago. Although technology has supported remote work for many years, many employers and employees only transitioned to a work-from-home setup within the past couple of years to comply with changing public health orders.

As the pandemic continues and populations become vaccinated, the working environment remains in a state of flux for many businesses. With some jurisdictions rolling back public health restrictions in light of improved infection rates, employers and employees alike are looking back at two years of change and wondering how to tackle the future.

Working from home provides many benefits for employers and employees

Aside from limiting the spread of COVID-19, remote work provides many benefits to Canadian workers. The lack of a commute allows for more time with loved ones and frees up time at home to pursue interests and hobbies unrelated to work. Additionally, many parents were required to assist their children with remote learning during school closures. Their ability to work at home ensured they could continue performing their own job duties while meeting the needs of their families.

Many employers also benefited from an increased output from workers who could repurpose the time previously required for their commute to tackle additional files or projects.

Remote work also presents unique challenges and changes to workplace culture

The seismic operational changes also created challenges for employees and employers adapting to their new working environments. Employers struggled with ensuring they could properly supervise and support employees from a distance. Using technology to work outside of a secure workplace can put sensitive business information at risk, requiring the creation of confidentiality and security protocols. 

Employees who work collaboratively on projects no longer had the benefit of a shared workspace and the ability to give and receive impromptu direction and feedback. Additionally, opportunities for face-to-face mentorship and networking were lost which can particularly affect employees at the start of their careers.

For many employers and employees, the workplace provides a social network and support, leading to issues of isolation that can affect mental health. Combining living and work environments can also blur the boundaries between personal and working time and create conflict within the home.

What’s next for remote work?

With infection rates decreasing in areas with largely vaccinated populations, public health restrictions are easing in many jurisdictions. Some employers have already required or requested employees return to work, while other employers are moving to fully remote or hybrid (remote-office) work models.

Hybrid work environments operate differently depending on the business. Some employees can choose between working from home and working onsite, while others will split their time between locations. This has the additional benefit of reducing office capacity levels to avoid the spread of infection or illness.

The primary consideration for many organizations will be the effect remote work arrangements had on overall output and productivity. Was there an increase or maintenance of service provision and revenue? Or will the organization need to scale back its mandate and operate a reduced capacity and/or budget? 

The legal implications for requiring employees to return to work are still being explored, including the provision of notice to employees to return to the worksite. Employment contracts may need to be reviewed and adjusted to ensure they reflect the current reality of the work environment and balance flexibility with predictability for employees. Some employees may continue to require accommodations that fall under human rights legislation.

Employers continue to have obligations to maintain a healthy and safe workplace, which may require further action if employees return to the premises. Many employers are facing questions regarding the legality of vaccine mandates and other health protocols such as physical distancing and mask requirements. Returning to work in the midst of the ongoing pandemic and changing public health policy can have occupational health and safety implications for both employees and employers, including an employees’ right to refuse dangerous work.

Many of these issues are before courts across Canada, with varying results. Changing work expectations and environments require experienced legal advice and representation to ensure employer and employee rights and obligations are understood and enforced.

Contact Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP for Advice on Remote Work and Return-to-Work Issues

Whether you are an employee or an employer, the potential return to work is complicated with many factors to consider, including legal and regulatory requirements. These issues can require new or amended employment and workplace policies and protocols, as well as updates to existing and future employment contracts.

The experienced employment lawyers at Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP in Toronto can advise employers and employees on their rights and obligations as affected by shifting public health policies. For more than 30 years, we have been an established touchstone of the employment law bar in Ontario and provide skilled and strategic legal advice to our clients. Contact us today at 416-364-9599 or online to schedule a consultation.