The Exaggerated Reports of Offices’ Demise: The Strength of Weak Workplace Ties

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Introduction In mid-March 2020, Canadian society pivoted from businessas-normal to lockdown and social distancing. By the end of March, 39 percent 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 percent 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, and so on) over the last 30 years (Felstead and Henseke, 2017; Ojala and Pyöriä, 2018; Putri and Shearmur, 2020). Depending on how it is estimated, about 20 to 30 percent 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 (Ojala and Pyöriä, 2018; Shearmur, 2020). 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 percent 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 (for example Putri and Shearmur, 2020; Shearmur, 2020) and upon 40 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 analyzed: nevertheless, some preliminary insights emerge that are discussed later. The first section illustrates the aforementioned trends, 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.

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