Does it make sense to go fully remote?

The Conference Board of Canada and Twitter are out of the office, but what are the pros and cons to such a move?

Does it make sense to go fully remote?

The Conference Board of Canada first opened its office doors in Ottawa more than three decades ago. Those doors are now closing, permanently. The research organization has decided it is going fully remote.

“We had a massive building that was empty, a big portion of it, most days anyway, pre-pandemic. So those are questions that you start to ask: ‘Does this space suit our purpose?’ And, in our case, it did not [and] the pandemic accelerated it,” says vice president Bryan Benjamin, based in Ottawa.

The Conference Board had always had a flexible work option, with people often working from home a day or two during the week. And when asked, 89 per cent of the workforce said they preferred fully remote or a hybrid version, he says, “and that was long-service employees right through to new hires.”

That’s not to say that employees won’t be brought together in the future at some kind of shared space, when it’s safe for off-site or client meetings.

“We will absolutely do that. But the core of our business will now be fully virtual,” says Benjamin. “One thing that the pandemic has taught us is we can’t predict five years from now, let alone five months even. So, we’re just taking it one phase at a time and, for this phase, this makes sense for us. That doesn’t mean we can’t have another phase in a year or two.”

Making the decision to go fully remote
There is huge interest in this area from employers, and at this point, “everything is on the table,” says Jean McClellan, national consulting, people and organization leader at PwC Canada in Calgary.

“Employers are evaluating ‘Why does the office exist? And why do we really need it? What helps the employees thrive at home, and what helps them thrive in the office?’ And all of that is up for grabs at this point in time,” she says.

“Employers are genuinely trying to understand what that value proposition is for employees, and then look at where their strategic opportunities are as well.”

In looking at a recent PwC survey of employees across the country, less than 20 per cent of employees want to go fully remote while more than two-thirds are keen to work in a hybrid model offering both, says McClellan.

“Employers really need to be looking at the preferences of their employees.”

The concept of work from home has been part of the cultural DNA at Twitter for years, says Paul Burns, managing director of Twitter Canada in Toronto.

“Our cofounder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, fundamentally disagrees with [the in-office] idea. We serve a global community, we are a global company and our workforce should be global in nature, and you should be able to contribute to Twitter, and grow your career, wherever you happen to work.”

COVID accelerated that entire process, with Twitter announcing in July that employees could work from home indefinitely.

“The core of this is about empowering people to work where they feel the most creative, where they feel the most comfortable and where they feel the most safe,” says Burns. “That’s probably a must for the future.”

The greatest likelihood of an employer embracing remote work is when it works better for the organization as well as for the employees. And now, employers potentially have a blank slate with which to work, says Geoffrey Leonardelli, professor at the Rotman School of Management and Department of Psychology in Toronto.

“It doesn’t necessarily require you to recreate what you had — it could be something different and better… That’s going to be the most interesting possibility here, which is, given that it’s a do-over, a way to recreate what the office requires, how could it be different in positive ways for everyone?”

In contemplating a move to a fully or largely remote workforce, there are several key considerations for employers, say the experts, when it comes to legal issues, keeping people connected, productive and engaged, and work-life balance.

Constructive dismissal risks
For an employer to go fully remote, it would mean a permanent, unilateral change to the terms and conditions of employment. And whenever that happens, employers need to take into account whether there is any risk of constructive dismissal, says Justine Lindner, an associate at McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto.

“An analysis of constructive dismissal risk, as well as an analysis of what the potential damages could be or the potential exposure associated with that risk, is always an individualized assessment of the employee circumstances.”

Someone who doesn’t usually work remotely full-time and then is expected to accept a permanent remote work arrangement may perceive that as having a detrimental impact, she says.

“Before COVID, we would often look at this and say, ‘Yes, there are some risks of constructive dismissal there.’ Since COVID, we don’t really know how courts are going to handle these types of claims, particularly given that there are strong health and safety reasons why people should accept work-from-home arrangements where they’re reasonable. But you can imagine that not every employee is going to be happy with a move to permanent work from home.”

Recruitment and compensation factors
There’s also a legal consideration to remote recruitment, says Lindner.

“Often, when you’re asking people about remote working arrangements, you might be tempted to ask questions that elicit answers about their family or about their personal circumstances. And family status is a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Human Rights Code,” she says.

“We often say, as a best practice, you may want to avoid asking questions that will end up with the candidate giving you that information. And because it’s just not information that you need in making your hiring decision, it’s better not to even have it.”

Another question to consider? Should employee compensation change if someone is now working in a different location than the office?

Broadly speaking, Twitter hasn’t really adjusted its compensation guidelines and plans despite the move to a remote setup, says Burns.

“What typically happens in our process is a mechanism where we will actually make sure that their compensation translates to the local market. And, so, there is a localization process that does occur, whether you’re moving from Toronto to Vancouver or San Francisco to Hawaii… There is a cost-of-living difference in in those changes. So, I think what we’re trying to do is ensure that compensation reflects the city that you live in. That’s definitely a filter that actually takes place.”

However, if an employer changes or lowers someone’s compensation, that engages the constructive dismissal risk and analysis, says Lindner.

“There’s definitely risk if you reduce compensation by moving people to work-from-home arrangements.”

Work-life balance and overtime
Another challenge with remote work is people may be working longer hours, but it’s not evident like it may be at an office. That can lead to stress and burnout — and potentially overtime claims.

When the lockdowns first started, a lot of people were working extra hours at the Conference Board, says Benjamin.

“We monitored that very carefully and, if someone was doing a lot, there was a check-in immediately to say, ‘Is it workload? Is it because you no longer have a 45-minute commute on either end so you’re now filling that with extra work?’ And it was a very individualized piece; we spent a lot of time talking about it at our company, just to really encourage our managers to make sure that they’re checking in.”

The organization was very deliberate in how it approached the issue and helping people who were struggling and unable to create boundaries, he says.

“That is going to be an ongoing balancing act for the foreseeable future.”

When an employer moves to an outcomes-driven approach, that can inspire efficiency in the organization, says McClellan.

“If your employees can figure out a way to complete a certain task in a certain amount of time, then that also gives them the incentive to have free time. But it is also about creating boundaries, allowing your employees to have discussions around boundaries and allowing your employees to have discussions about team norms and creating an environment where they can bring their whole selves to work.”

It’s also important to note that many employees who are salaried are eligible for overtime, and if an employer is not tracking that overtime, there could be a dispute down the road about money owed, says Lindner.

“Employers may not have turned their mind to how they’re going to track time worked now that employees are no longer coming into a physical office or there may not be an obvious time in-timeout taking place.”

It’s also important to set expectations around hours of work, particularly if a flexible schedule is involved, she says.

“It is very important to have clear, unambiguous expectations that are set out in writing about hours to be worked, when employees are to be available, if that’s going to be an issue.”

Boosting innovation and productivity
Another big concern that’s been expressed about the rise of remote work is potential declines when it comes to innovation and productivity. How can those levels be maintained with everyone so spread out?

PwC has found that technology tools can enable innovation and inspire many different ideas through sharing venues, says McClellan.

“I don’t see that actually as a barrier at all... We have wonderful collaboration tools available out in the market, and it’s more about teaching teams how to use them and how to how to make those work.”

At Twitter, Burns says he has been a part of countless brainstorming sessions and innovation sessions over the last several months and “they’ve been significantly more powerful than they would be in person.”

“People often talk about these serendipitous moments or casual walkbys with office colleagues that lead to innovation, and while that may be partially true, the push to remote work has forced employers to put a bit more structure around how people think about those things,” he says.

“What it is doing is adding discipline to the process that may have come organically [before].”

The Conference Board of Canada is boosting its investment in technology to ensure greater productivity and innovation when people are not physically together, says Benjamin.

“It’s not just using it for calls; you can use it for breakouts and productivity and brainstorming and some of those components,” he says.

“We work really hard to embrace technology. So, we’re able to do great brainstorming sessions, we have lots of cross-functional groups that we’ve put together. In fact, we’re thinking more broadly than we did even in the office in terms of: ‘Who do we want to involve in this group? How do we have open brainstorming sessions? How do we use breakout groups so people can move pieces forward?’”

Cultivating culture and connections
Building and retaining culture and connections among new and existing employees in the move to remote work is another big consideration and something that employers are having to rethink, says McClellan.

“There is no replacement for human connection, and you can get some of that over a screen, but… what we’re seeing through this pandemic is how much human connectivity and wellness is actually built through the workplace.”

Employers need to think about how they’re going to create those connections, she says. While large in-person meetings are out of the question, longer term, people potentially could come in periodically to meet face to face or small groups could meet for drinks.

“That’s something that you probably would have done organically in the workplace, [but now] we’re having to think in a far more structured way about that,” says McClellan.

“When we move into this new scenario, it’s not quite as intuitive — for most employers, for most supervisors, for most managers — so that is causing a need to think about ‘How do I coach differently? How do I check in with my team? How do I create that environment, that culture that really can help us move forward?’”

Employers have to be much more deliberate about engaging with their teams, says Benjamin.

“I love to roam around the office, but now I just do it virtually. So, we have scheduled check-ins, but sometimes I’ll just call someone and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you, how are you doing?’ And it tends to work. And if we model it as an executive team, we get our senior leaders doing it, then people are doing it among themselves much more frequently.”

Benjamin has also made it an expectation in his respective team meeting to use video for calls.

“We never said, ‘Thou shalt…’ but it just became a lead by example. And people will do it and even those who were the most reticent, I’ve found in the last couple of weeks, have come around, and now everyone uses it… It’s super important. I find the quality of the conversation is better.”

Trust is also key to the whole scenario, says Burns.

“Telling your people you trust them and respect their choices, it’s a massive vote of confidence. And, so, I think this idea of working from home, there’s a real practicality to it today, but I think deeper within all that it’s a sense of real trust and respect that we have for the people. That’s the core underpinning of all this.”

Another big way people connect at Twitter is through its business resource groups (BRGs), which have seen record growth in membership and participation since the pandemic.

“That really speaks to the sense of belonging that these groups are able to cultivate. These groups centre voices and experiences that are underrepresented and coming from marginalized communities as well,” says Mike Klose, client account manager at Twitter Canada in Toronto.

“When you think of recruiting, when someone comes into the company or looks at the company, they want to know that they belong in the company, that there can be values for all of who they are and not just necessarily the technical skills that they might bring.”

When people work on-site together, there can be a false sense of interdependence in the sense of “We’re in this together,” says Leonardelli, but that sense of unity or group identity can be found online as well.

“It falls to leadership… they might not have done as much before [with] what it means to be part of the same culture, what it means to be part of the same group and what are the norms that define us as a group?”

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