The exaggerated reports of offices’ demise: the strength of weak workplace ties
by Richard Shearmura, Manuela Parra-Lokhorst and Alastair Wycliffe-Jones,
McGill School of Urban Planning
draft chapter prepared for book edited by Brian Doucet and Pierre Filion
In mid-March 2020, Canadian society pivoted from business-as-normal to lock-down and social
distancing. By the end of March, 39% of Canada’s workforce was working from home (Deng et al, 2020),
leading some to declare that “this might just be the end of the office as we knew it” (Vasel, 2020).
Indeed, the percentage mentioned in Deng et al’s report appears large, especially if one assumes the
number was close to 0% before the pandemic: but such an assumption would be inaccurate. There has
been a slow but steady increase in remote work (from home, but also cafés, co-working spaces, cars,
etc.) over the last thirty years (Felstead & Henseke, 2017; Ojala & Pyöriä, 2018; Putri & Shearmur,
2020a). Depending on how it is estimated, about 20 to 30% of the workforce did not regularly work in a
‘usual place of work’ pre-pandemic. Furthermore, it had become common for people officially assigned
to a usual place of work – such as an office – to work part of the time (typically one day a week) from
home (Shearmur, 2020a; Ojala and Pyöriä, 2018).
In this chapter, we suggest that working from home will become more common, but that offices will
remain relevant. There are two related reasons for this. First, working away from the office was already
common for many office workers, without offices disappearing: rather, office space has been evolving
(often towards shared spaces), and this will continue as businesses become more familiar with remote
work – the pandemic did not start this trend. Second, although workers will more frequently work from
home, they will not do so 100% of the time: gathering workers in a single location at specific times
generates and reinforces social ties, coordination, and intra-office communication, which make
economic sense and produce efficiencies that erode when work is remote.
These arguments rest upon previously reported analyses and surveys (e.g. Shearmur, 2020a; Putri &
Shearmur, 2020) and upon forty in-depth interviews conducted in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver
between May and July 2020 with people working from home. These interviews are not yet formally
analysed: nevertheless, some preliminary insights emerge that are discussed below.
The first section illustrates the trends mentioned above, showing that many – but not all – workers and
workplaces had implemented some workplace flexibility before the pandemic, while others have now
discovered that this is feasible. The second section discusses some limits of working from home: there
are economic and competitive constraints on generalised work from home (WFH). In conclusion, we
highlight three urban and work-related topics for further exploration: neighbourhood-level
consequences of increased daytime activity, the future of traditional office zones, and the exacerbation
of workplace inequalities.
Working from Home: enablers and constraints
Before the pandemic many interviewees either worked from home occasionally, or were at least
equipped for remote work: the switch to WFH posed few technical problems, and their familiarity with
remote work eased the transition.
“because I was a consultant, I’m used to work from home, so I was already set up […] So, when they
told me I would have to work from home […] for me it went seamless.” (R10)
“So, we had all these things before […] The main office is in [Montreal suburb], but there are offices
in Quebec City and in Vancouver, and there are a few guys from Vancouver that we work with pretty
closely. So, we would … like video call them” (R11)
In contrast, others rarely worked from home either because their employers did not permit it or
because it posed logistical problems.
“No, we didn’t have access to telework because the bank was very very uncomfortable to give us
access to remote work” (R13)*
“I currently operate in a 12 by 12 room that is in a non-ideal work location…. I had to buy a new
laptop stand, new keyboards, new mouse, new ergonomic chair, new chair mat. …. I had to move
bedrooms in order to facilitate the addition” (R22)
“In my apartment, I do not have the space to add a new desk” (R19)*
Despite difficulties in working permanently from home, workers who were permitted by their employer
did so occasionally previously: however, this was when it suited them and/or when their flatmates or
family were not around.
Not surprisingly, having a large house with extra space makes working from home far more comfortable.
“So we have an office actually that is upstairs. My wife had commandeered it for her painting, but I
have now commandeered it for work. […] The only things I had to do was I did go down to the
[corporate] office and I did bring in a second monitor for home” (R30)
Whereas housing-related constraints that some workers face cannot easily be overcome, employers’
attitudes towards WFH are evolving.
“Our executives said multiple times that they were shocked of how well working from home went, I
don't think they were expecting it to be that smoothly and for people to be that productive. So
they've communicated that they're definitely open to a more flexible work from home policy” (R37)
“… before it was more limited …. there was a certain fear. It’s like a myth that if you work at home
you work less….. I think that after all this experience we’ve just lived, it opens the possibility …. to say
it’s possible to do your work from home” (R19)*
All interviewees were asked, at the end of the interview, what their preference would be for the future.
Almost all would like the freedom to work partly from home and partly in an office: there is a quasi
consensus (irrespective of the respondents’ housing situation) that about two (maybe three) days at
home and three at the office would strike an appropriate balance.
Respondents are identified as Rxx. A star indicates that the quite has been translated from French.
This consensus can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it indicates that despite constraints
faced by some, there are advantages to working from home, such as reduced commuting (a key
advantage for many respondents), ability to focus, and combining household tasks - such as running the
laundry or cooking - with work. On the other hand, it indicates that almost all interviewees wish to work
outside home for about three days per week, raising an important question: what is so attractive about
working in an office?
The attraction and efficiencies of offices
Many interviewees mention certain office items (such as printers, chairs and screens), activities
(walking, breaks), and interpersonal dynamics that they miss at home. Most mention these as
inconveniences: however, these inconveniences point to wider issues should WFH become the new
normal. Their current status as ‘inconveniences’ may partly be due to WFH’s novelty and partly to
interviewees being grateful for having a job during the pandemic : many mention friends or family who
have lost their job, and feel lucky by comparison.
Informal conversations and chit-chat are no longer possible. Whilst video-conferencing functions well
for meetings with a clear agenda, informal exchanges with colleagues and fleeting water-cooler
connexions with co-workers are missed.
“The social aspect of speaking to your peers and you know, the idle chatter, banter that would
happen in the lab certainly kept you more, how do you say, more sane during your hours and not
having that and only having to chat via text is certainly a little bit more depressing” (R15)
The lack of social interaction can also have impacts on creativity and the generation of new ideas.
“I would say like, all the creative aspects [are more difficult from home] …, because I felt like
something that was really specific to us is like the creative process. There was like an inclusivity or
like this conversational aspect or just like bouncing ideas from each other. It was really helpful and
constructive in some ways, and since most of our [current, remote,] meeting groups or calls are more
centered on the logistics or like, making sure that like, plans and the schedule is okay, right, but less
on the creative aspects, so I think that kind of affects that aspect of my work... (R8)
Many interviewees raise the question of productivity, most of whom report being more productive at
“You're more productive when you're at home, to be honest. Other than the things that you can't do
because of the server. […] like it's easier to focus. […] when I’m at work I’m at a desk and whenever
someone needs anything they just pass by and stop like “Hey, do you have a minute, I want you to
look at something?” or “Oh, do you want to come here, I have something to show you?” And so like,
yes at work it’s easier to work because of the screens, the server works quick, you have all of the
documents that you need... But, at work, you could also get distracted like that.” (R1)
Such increased productivity is a two-edged sword: the extra focus and uninterrupted concentration that
occurs at home means that people take fewer breaks, work longer hours, interact less with colleagues,
and have difficulty switching off at the end of the day. Research on workplace productivity emphasises
how important micro-breaks are, especially if these short breaks (5 to 10 minutes) are spent with other
people and not merely consulting social media (Rhee & Kim, 2017). Long-term worker health and
productivity depends on micro-breaks during the day and on the capacity to switch off and recuperate
for longer periods (Patterson, 2013). Our interviews reveal that working from home can reduce the
capacity of workers to take breaks, hinting at longer-term issues should working from home become the
Other limits to working from home are mentioned, in particular, difficulty in developing new personal
relationships or in discussing complex issues with unknown people.
“I lost that personal connection with the clients, because I wasn't able to spend time with them in
person and feel the room as well as you can over a conference call. It's just harder to have though, to
build strong relationships over Teams and conference calls” (R40)
A related item that may limit WFH is the inefficiency of video-conference meetings and e-mails.
Notwithstanding the increased productivity mentioned by many interviewees – often linked to
performing specific tasks – the effectiveness of communication has often decreased. There can be
delays in responses to simple enquiries as well as misunderstandings.
“I would pop in once a month to our commercial lines team, just like see how things are going on
down there. Right now, there's no obvious way for me to collect that information. […] I don’t want
what they would write down, I want what they would say like in a group” (R29)
“Sometimes we have many misunderstandings when we send messages […] sometimes it is rather
time consuming. I think it is too time consuming, that you send a message, that you understand, that
you get back to them […] We work more to get to the same result” (R19)*
Discussion and conclusion: offices, residential neighbourhoods and inequality
Overall, our evidence suggests that people working from home during the pandemic enjoy the
experience and would like to retain the option after the pandemic subsides, but miss the social
interaction, ease of communication, light physical activity, bouncing of ideas, and dedicated
workstations that classic office space provides. Some interviewees mentioned that leaving home each
morning made them feel part of society and that dressing up for work and going out was an important
ritual. Only one interviewee said they wanted to work exclusively from home post-pandemic.
From the perspective of employers, whether to abandon office space is a difficult decision. In the short-
term, office-based businesses and organisations seem to function well remotely, so a shift to more
permanent remote arrangements appears to make economic sense. Nevertheless, there are signs in our
interviews that working from home distends teams, leads to feelings of isolation and depression, and
suppresses the weak workplace ties - similar to Granovetter’s (1983) weak social ties - that bind
companies together over the long term. The preferred solution of our interviewees, working about two
days a week from home and the rest in an office, may also be the most efficient for employers.
However, increasing work from home – even by about 20 % (i.e. all office workers spending one extra
day a week at home) – will have consequences. We will briefly evoke three of them.
Residential neighbourhoods: if people increasingly work from home, neighbourhood services, informal
workspaces, and digital infrastructure will need to adapt, as will the zoning and planning rules that tend
to separate residential from other functions.
Downtown and other office centres: downtown (and other office sub-centres) will remain an attractive
office location, but, with fewer workers in offices at any specific time, businesses will require less space.
Marginal and older office space will be harder to let. Furthermore, businesses that rely upon daytime
workers as clients will need to rethink their business models.
Equity: not everyone can work comfortably from home, nor does everyone have the requisite
broadband and communications equipment. If working from home becomes a requirement, then
younger, lower-paid or poorly housed workers will find it increasingly difficult to find and hold down
‘office’ jobs. It will also place more burden on women who, when at home, tend to perform more of the
“… you can't really expect everyone to have the same at-home work setup and the same
availabilities. Which is, I think, markedly different than when you're in the office full time […]
everyone kind of comes into work [at the office] and everyone's equal…” (R34)
Deng, Z., Morisette, R. and Messacar, D. (2020). Running the economy remotely: Potential for working
from home during and after Covid-19. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Catalogue no. 45280001
Felstead, A. and Henseke, G. (2017). Assessing the growth of remote working and its consequences for
effort, well- being and work- life balance. New Technology, Work and Employment, 32(3), 195-212
Granovetter, M. (1983). The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory, 1,
Ojala, S. and Pyöriä, P. (2018). Mobile knowledge workers and traditional mobile workers. Acta
Sociologica, 61(4): 402–418.
Patterson, J. (2013). Switching Off. Occupational Health, 65(6), 15-17
Putri, D. and Shearmur, R. (2020). Workplace Mobility in Canadian Urban Agglomerations, 1996 to 2016:
Have Workers Really Flown the Coop? The Canadian Geographer, https://doi.org/10.1111/cag.12622
Rhee, H. and Kim, S. (2017). Effects of breaks on regaining vitality at work: An empirical comparison of
‘conventional’ and ‘smart phone’ breaks. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 160-167
Shearmur, R. (2020a). Conceptualizing and measuring the location of work: work location as a
probability space. Urban Studies, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098020912124
Vasel, K. (2020). This might just be the end of the office as we know it. CNN Business, 17th June 2020.
Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/success/end-of-office-coronavirus/index.html