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Uncertainty a certainty for post-vaccination office environment

Poll: Close to half of British Columbian workers say they would be likely to seek a different job if not allowed to work from home as often as they want.
Young B.C. workers strongly prefer having the option of working at home. | borchee/E+/Getty Images
Six months ago, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked employed British Columbians about their work expectations during and after a pandemic. At the time, COVID-19 was still a prevalent concern for many Canadians, and skepticism about the federal government’s ability to implement a proper vaccine rollout was rampant.

As the fall season begins, businesses across the country are implementing plans for a return to the office, aided by significant milestones that seemed unattainable half a year ago. Practically every willing Canadian has been inoculated against COVID-19. British Columbia is implementing a “vaccine passport” for specific activities, a concept that has been extremely popular across the province.

Back in March, employed British Columbians were not thrilled about a return to the office. This month, we chose to review the current state of affairs and found some numbers slightly shifting into the perceptions of the workplace that we had in our pre-pandemic existence.

British Columbians continue to expect some of the new features of their jobs to remain in place once workplaces are reopen, but not with the same intensity that we observed six months ago. Just over two in five employees (43%) believe they will attend more virtual staff meetings through audio or video conferencing, down seven points since March. There is also a reduction in the expectation of virtual business development (41%, down six points) and virtual communications between offices (43%, down three points).

At the same time, there is some change when it comes to the traditional ways of conducting business. Fewer respondents believe they will be asked to attend in-person staff meetings (42%, down five points). There is also a drop in the expectation of in-person business development meetings (38%, down five points) and reduced business travel between offices (37%, down seven points).

In spite of the high vaccination rates, a significant number of British Columbians remain in the dark about what their office will ultimately look like. We found that 45% of employed residents of the province have been informed about plans to return to their workplace, up 13 points since March. There is also an increase in how many have been advised about the guidelines to continue to work from home, from 32% in March to 40% this month.

While these findings may indicate that the public is moving closer to a world where commuting to the office is again the norm, there are some significant fluctuations on the idea of working from home even when the pandemic is officially over.

In March, 38% of employed British Columbians told us they expected to work from home for three days a week or more once COVID-19 is gone. This month, the proportion has jumped to 47%. Some workplaces are making sure that they can receive employees, but a significant proportion of them have grown to love their current situation.

This brings us back to the complex matter of worker loyalty. In March, 49% of employed British Columbians told us they would be likely to seek a different position if their current company does not allow them to work from home as often as they want. This month, the proportion has risen to 56%.

There is a significant generation gap on this issue. While employed British Columbians aged 55 and over do not see working from home as a deal-breaker (38%), the proportion rises to 55% among those aged 35 to 54 and to 65% among those aged 18 to 34. This is a number that cannot be easily ignored by human resources departments: two-thirds of the province’s youngest employees will look elsewhere if their bosses do not grant them the flexibility they crave.

The survey provides good and bad news for businesses across B.C. On the one hand, some workers are already envisioning a world without virtual communications and a return to usual business development practices. On the other, if the right opportunity came along to work from home more often, employees – especially those in the youngest two age groups – would walk away. The challenge for employers will be to make the post-pandemic workplace more attractive, whether through amenities, in-person attendance bonuses or company culture, than the kitchen table. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted on September 5 and September 6, 2021, among 700 adults who work in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.