This article was originally published on Policy Options.
It’s been over a year since the Liberal government was elected on a platform that included a pledge to amend the Canada Labour Code to provide every federally regulated worker with the legal right to make a formal request for flexible working conditions. This could affect approximately 12,000 organizations in the country.
Some might argue that this relatively minor plank is no longer relevant in the current geopolitical environment, that with NAFTA under threat, we don’t have time to worry about “perks” like flexible work. In fact, the opposite is true.
While others talk in vain about to returning to an era characterized by long-term, predictable employment, Canada has an opportunity to embrace the future with government policy that supports employers and the workers they’ll need.
When the economy relied heavily on labour intensive manufacturing, predictable work and hours allowed for increased efficiency. Moving forward, anything that can be automated will be automated. As American businessman Mark Cuban recently noted, the economy of the future will favour, “those who excel at creative and critical thinking,” workers who work when and where they are most productive.
Here are five things that policy-makers and employers should keep in mind as they prepare for the future of work. In writing this article I have drawn extensively on research conducted by WORKshift last year that looked at 2,000 working Canadians from across the country and across generations.
There is no global 9 to 5
With renewed motivation to strengthen our global trade agreements such as CETA, it’s likely that we’ll see more Canadians collaborating and selling across a wide range of time zones. As anyone who has worked for a global organization can attest to, this often means working outside traditional 9 to 5 hours. Organizations that have the technology and policies to facilitate more flexible work give their employees the means to integrate these time demands into their lives.
Organizations that deal in a single time zone can still benefit from increased flexibility by allowing their staff to work when they are most productive. In our research, we found that over 50 percent of Canadians report that they are most productive outside traditional work hours (figure 1).
Forcing people to come to work when it suits managers who want to see them sit in their seats isn’t only a poor way to manage employees, it has a negative impact on productivity. In addition, it puts pressure on our public transportation infrastructure by creating “rush hours.”
Research out of Denmark found that early birds earn on average about 4 to 5 percent more than night owls, simply because their natural sleep patterns are better aligned with traditional work hours.
This is not about millennials
Millennials are often blamed for many of the changes in the way that we work. This much-maligned generation is accused of being lazy, too quick to jump between companies, and addicted to their smart phones.
This “blame the millennials” attitude seemed to us a little too simple. In our research, we wanted to see if millennials really do look at the workplace differently from their counterparts in other generations.
We found that that there were no significant differences among generations. It’s not the new generation that is changing the way we work, it’s work and our expectations of it that are changing. For example, 46 percent of Canadians would take less pay for more flexibility (figure 2).
Flexible work can help mitigate the gender-wage gap
In an article for Vox, The truth about the gender wage gap, journalist Sarah Kliff looked at research by three Harvard economists that explored how gender impacted the career trajectories of a group of MBA graduates. What they found was that the gap is significantly higher in professions with rigid hours, and that flexibility can offer part of a solution. As she wrote, “research suggests that making hours more flexible — and workers more interchangeable — will lessen the economic benefits of the rigid work schedule.” In most occupations, there is no inherent benefit to this rigid perspective on hours, it stems from poor managers who look for bums in seats rather than results. As more industries and organizations make the transition to flexible work, fewer roles will reward those putting in hours for hours’ sake.
Governments across the country are seizing the opportunity for change in order to attract and retain talent. At the federal level, as Treasury Board President Scott Brison told the CBC’s “The Current” in 2016, the government recognizes the need to modernize how the public service recruits talent. Indeed, the government has multiple projects underway in its quest to become an employer of choice. And at the local level, the City of Edmonton, a leader in municipal innovation, is undertaking an integrated corporate-wide transformation in the places, spaces and ways in which its employees work. Edmonton’s general supervisor Scott Varga explains, “this project is driven by our desire to serve our citizens better and support our employees in healthy, productive workplaces, while reducing our real estate footprint and impact on the environment.”
Flexibility and economic development
Fortunately, in this time of globalization, the opportunities for remote work are greater than ever. Calgary Economic Development is putting this promise to the test, showcasing Calgary’s talented workforce to jurisdictions facing a labour crunch and high real estate costs.
What it has named the “Talent Hub” will help keep Calgary’s talent and also export it. We live in a fortunate time – a time when many project functions can be performed virtually. Calgary Economic Development is working to partner with the private sector to identify pockets of talented, unemployed Calgarians and match them with talent needs in other regions and cities, such as Silicon Valley, Vancouver and New York.
It is using flexible work to put Calgary on the world map as a hub for expertise, help talent apply their skills to new industries, support diversification, and encourage people to congregate in co-work spaces in the downtown core — all while creating a buzz of excitement, optimism and community.
What we call “workshifting” means so much more than working from home, it means new possibilities for cities that are facing economic challenges.
The time for change is now
Automation and globalization aren’t going away. Faced with this, employers in the public and private sectors have two choices: they can cling to a utopian view of the past and fall behind, or they can act now to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the changing nature of work.
While some are closing borders, Canada has the opportunity to welcome exactly the kind of workers and businesses that will drive our economy forward. By embracing changes like flexible work, and with innovative programs like Calgary’s Talent Hub, Canada can take advantage of a world where talent and ideas trump location.
This article is part of the Policy Options special feature, The Changing Nature of Work.