Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Patricia Coppard: Working remotely is the horse that got out of the barn

If we’re going to lure people back to the office, we better talk up the benefits: people to chat with that you’re not related to and someone else cleaning the bathroom
Working remotely is so normalized since COVID, it’s seen as a right, not a privilege. VIA FLICKR

When I was a kid, my dad worked as a cost accountant at a mine.

At one point, management must have been feeling magnanimous or copper prices were high or maybe labour was in short supply, anyway, for whatever reason, each worker was given a day off every month — with pay, presumably — called a “happy day.”

That was great until the inevitable day when this privilege was taken away (maybe copper prices were low). Great outrage ensued.

It’s hard to take something back once you’ve given it.

I was reminded of this recently after federal public servants were ordered to work in the office at least three days a week starting Sept. 9. They reacted as if they’d been told to give up their cellphones and start using fax machines again.

The Public Service Alliance said it would be filing an unfair labour practice complaint and looking into other legal options.

“PSAC workers are incredibly frustrated and angered by this announcement,” national president Chris Alyward said.

He was referring, of course, to workers being asked to do something they had fully agreed to when they were hired and that would have seemed like a perk back in 2019 — NOT having to be in the office two days a week.

Working remotely is so normalized since COVID, it’s seen as a right, not a privilege, and is frequently cited as a factor in labour disputes.

Some people really, really like it, to the point where it’s a deal killer for taking or keeping a job — try to get them back in the office and they’re harder to budge than a blueberry stain on a white button-down. There are tumbleweeds blowing through some office towers as a result.

I worked remotely for a couple of years during the pandemic, at first because I had to, but I eventually got used to it.

When people started trickling back into the office, I did too, just half days initially, then a few days a week, and eventually, a full five days.

At first it was distracting having other people around when I was trying to concentrate, but it wasn’t long before I found that I didn’t want to work at home anymore.

In the office, for one thing, there are people who are paid to clean the bathroom. No one expects me to give the sink a wipe and clean the mirror while I’m in there.

I can also wear nice clothes — nothing fancy, just business casual, as opposed to rec-room casual.

And I can’t even begin to describe the pleasures of being able to walk over and ask someone a question rather than having to look up their phone number/email address/Instagram handle.

There is also a harder line between work and home.

I don’t have to put in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher on my break, or explain to my teenagers — who always seem to be home from school on a pro-D day/curriculum-completion day/seasonal break — why I can’t drive them somewhere/give them money/sign their form/make them a smoothie while also trying to do my trying-to-make-a-living-here work.

Also, there are people in my workplace whom I like and enjoy occasionally chit-chatting with at the Keurig machine. At home, there is the cat, but she is an absolute brick wall when it comes to office gossip.

True, I have a nice office with big windows and views of the water, and my commute includes riding my bike over the Selkirk Trestle.

And I get it — if you work in a windowless room, you hate your co-workers and your job requires zero collaboration, you might want to fight for your right to work from home. But also, you might want to consider quitting because dude, that sounds horrible, and hell, there’s a labour shortage right now.

It’s a quandary, how to convince people to get back into the office when they’re enjoying the flexibility and comforts of the non-commute — especially at a time when it can be hard to replace someone who quits.

Like the Treasury Board, I believe there are benefits to interacting in person in a consistent way. There are real advantages to having people who work as a team actually be in the same room, or at least the same building — advantages for them, and for the product.

Managers who want people back in the office have a couple of options. They can impose mandates, like the Treasury Board, and let the chips fall where they may.

Or they can make coming back to the office an attractive proposition (really hype up the bathroom cleaning and no-kids thing).

The bottom line is that they can’t ignore the fact that something fundamental has shifted.

A short-term measure to get through the pandemic has accidentally changed the entire nature of office work.

This ornery horse will be hard to get back into the barn.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: [email protected]