According to Statistics Canada, nearly 5 million workers shifted to remote work by the end of March 2020. In her first blog post for the Skills for the Post-Pandemic World project, Anjum Sultana discusses what the 'new normal' looks like for her and many workers like her all across the country, and explores the challenges that organizations, individuals, and policy-makers face with the work-from-home transition.

Today is Day 105… since I started working from home full time, that is. And I’m not the only one.  

According to Statistics Canada, nearly 5 million workers shifted to remote work by the end of March 2020. This was in response to physical distancing requirements brought on by the COVID-19 crisis and didn’t include the 2.1 million workers who were already working from home before wide-spread economic shutdowns.  

Working from home is not inherently good or bad but it does present challenges for firms and workers. Whether it works well or not is largely dependent on how employers respond to employee needs. Employers need to understand the diversity of employees’ circumstances and employees need to have the right skills, technology and environments to enable success.  

With this new way of work thrust upon us, many of us have learned how to cope with telecommuting arrangements on the job. 

In our forthcoming paper for the Skills for the Post-Pandemic World project – a partnership between the Public Policy Forum, the Diversity Institute, and the Future Skills Centre, with support from Microsoft – Dan Munro and I highlight key trends like the changing geography of work and its implications for skills-training in a post-pandemic economy. We ask:

  1. How do we train and re-skill for a future where many of us will be only working remotely if this is going to be the new normal?
  2. What skills are necessary to do remote work right? And,
  3. Who will bear the responsibility for teaching?

Who is working from home?

Telecommuting has quickly become the reality for more workers, but who actually gets to work from home? Approximately 40% of jobs in Canada can be done remotely. Remote workers are more likely to be paid more, be more highly educated and to be working in service industries like financial and educational services compared to goods-producing sectors. Women are also more likely to work in jobs that can be done remotely, such as 50% of single women compared to 38% of single men.   

Three months later, many organizations are moving towards making their pandemic-induced work from home arrangements an enduring reality. In fact, many tech companies like Facebook, Shopify, and Twitter are eschewing offices altogether and publicly committing to permanently shifting part or all of their workforce to remote work. 

Remote Work – the Good, the Bad and the Unjust 

But what does the rapid adoption of remote work mean for workers? 

Overnight, companies have seen first-hand the proof case that remote work is not only feasible but effective. Some workers are reporting that working from home has meant no commutes and fewer distractions. Before the pandemic, work from home was found in some studies to increase productivity, improve workers’ satisfaction and reduce the likelihood of workers quitting 

During this pandemic, the increased flexibility has also made it easier for some to maintain a better work/life balance and spend more time with family. For employers, the talent pool has expanded globally. Telecommuting also offers workers more choice in who to work for and makes it easier to collaborate with colleagues as long as they have access to the internet. In fact, since they will no longer be constrained by where they live, workers may decide to move to locales with a lower cost of living 

There have been long-standing calls for more flexibility in the workplace, especially by gender equity, and disability justice advocates. The large scale uptake of remote work has also had some commenting that it has de-stigmatized the practice. Before the crisis, even when working from home was offered as an option, there was an impression that workers who opted in were less dedicated or it was seen as a perk reserved only for high performers. This was more acutely felt by  women who wanted more flexibility to accommodate care duties as well as people with disabilities and immunocompromising health conditions 

But, the picture doesn’t look good for all workers. It’s one thing to work from home. It’s a whole other challenge to work from home during a pandemic 

Pre-pandemic data shows that when people work from home, they are more likely to work longer hours and find it difficult to unplug. During a pandemic, it seems even more likely. Some employers are reporting that their staff are working 10 to 12 hours daily. The risk of burnout is real.  

 When there is increased economic anxiety around job security and with the potential of layoffs, the imperative to work seems more pressing. Also, when there is large scale shuttering of not only workplaces but also recreational activities, there may be nothing else to distract you. And if you do take a vacation – where do you go? What can you actually do?  

 For women, the pandemic has also led to increased unpaid work. With school and camp closures, women workers, who take on the bulk of unpaid care work, are having to not only be workers and carers but also educators and teachers. Also, during an ever-present health crisis, they are also taking on the lion’s share of caring for the sick and elderly.

This is resulting in 7 in 10 Canadian women reporting they are experiencing anxiety due to unpaid care work during the pandemic.  

Many workers are also experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’ – having 8 hour days full of videoconferencing can be exhausting. Furthermore, with the increased economic anxiety, stress and uncertainty, many are predicting that there will be an echo pandemic’. With little to no social interactions outside of your household, and video conferencing a poor substitute for meeting with friends and family in person, there may be severe long-term health consequences for the Canadian population.  

The pandemic has also laid bare the long-standing inequities.  

If everything from work to school to socializing is being transferred to online, what does it mean if you don’t have reliable access to high-speed broadband internet, Canada faces a connectivity gap with many rural, remote, and Northern communities falling behind. In 2017, only 37% of rural households had access to high speed internet (50/10 Mbps) (compared to 97% of urban households). For Indigenous communities, the gap is even more glaring where only 1 in 4 households have access to high speed internet.  The digital divide is also felt for low-income families who may not be able to afford multiple computers for everyone to work or go to school remotely.  

What else do we need to factor in when it comes to working from home? Internet and phone subsidies, paying for office equipment and maybe rental supplements? At the same time, companies like Facebook are floating the idea that if people are working remotely from less expensive cities, salaries may be reduced accordingly.   

Remote Work is Here to Stay – Implications for Skills Training 

Given that remote work is here to stay in some shape or form, – what are the implications for skills training and development for new graduates, early career professionals and workers with established careers?  

This will be one of the areas Dan Munro and I will examine in our forthcoming scoping paper for the Skills for the Post-Pandemic World project with the Public Policy Forum, the Diversity Institute, and the Future Skills Centre.

Preliminary findings suggest foundational skills such as knowing how to learn, emotional intelligence and communication will be an important piece of the puzzle. Being tech-savvy,  resilient and having the ability to synthesize complex data will also be critical. While working from home has been shown to have a range of benefits, it is not as valuable for fostering creativity. Those who can retain the ability to think creatively and critically while working remotely in the post-pandemic era will be at an advantage.  

For new entrants into the labour market or for people searching for a job during the pandemic, it can be difficult to navigate the digital-first employment landscape. How are you supposed to network during this pandemic? And for employers, there is a lot of learning happening right now on how best to interview, hire and onboard employees. On top of that, it will be more important than ever before for managers to think about how to manage employees remotely in an inclusive manner. That means increasing the capacity for managerial skills to ensure motivated, emotionally connected workers who do not feel socially isolated.  

Now, much of this post has been talking about working from home during a pandemic. However, currently, 60% of jobs do not have the capacity to shift to remote work such as occupations in agriculture, food services, construction, manufacturing and retail. It may mean rapid shifts will happen to make them remote-ready for future situations, or job displacement will force expansions in other sectors like the care economy and entirely new industries will be created to fill the gap.  

I’m hopeful if we keep equity at the forefront, we can leverage the global shift to remote work to create a lasting legacy where workplaces are designed with workers’ needs at the core and so no one gets left behind. But, it won’t happen by accident. We must plan for it.  

The pandemic is the perfect opportunity to experiment, amplify and scale-up solutions to make the future of (remote) work a more equitable one.  



Anjum Sultana and Dan Munro are lead authors for the first phase of the Public Policy Forum’s project on Skills for the Post-Pandemic World, in partnership with the Diversity Institute, the Future Skills Centre, and with support from Microsoft. Over the summer, 2020, they will be researching and convening stakeholders to produce a scoping paper that will help guide future research on this topic. 

Thank you to the Skills for the Post-Pandemic World project Partners: