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Employers will need new policies, practices to tackle shift to work-from-home

As companies begin to think about a return of staff to their offices, some firms are looking at a more permanent shift to work-from-home through flexible arrangements or even shuttering some office spaces as the COVID-19 shutdown moves from weeks into months.

While employers may see savings from such arrangements due to lower real estate costs, experts say they will have to navigate a host of new circumstances around home office equipment, where employees are allowed to live and more.

"There is going to be some economic advantage to employers in many cases to have employees work from home," said Trevor Lawson, partner, labour and employment at the law firm McCarthy Tetrault.

Employers may be able to reduce the footprint of their physical workspaces and corresponding overhead costs, such as rent, he said.

Waterloo-based OpenText Corp. announced in late April that given the productivity of its workforce at home, the company decided not to reopen about half of its 120 offices, which will impact about 15 per cent of its employees. While the company anticipates the real estate restructuring to cost $65 million to $80 million, it also expects to see annual expenses reduced by $65 million to $75 million from the shift and a five per cent workforce reduction.

Employers will want to ensure those working from home can do so productively and safely, said Lawson, and could consider offering an allowance to set up a dedicated workstation with the proper technology. Employers may have to be flexible with what makes an appropriate workspace, he noted, when taking into account employees with space or other constraints.

Some companies provided money for setup costs when they first shifted employees out of offices and into their homes as the coronavirus spread throughout Canada.

Shopify employees, for example, received a $1,000 stipend for office supplies.

"Employees were allowed to purchase office equipment such as lamps, office chairs and a new desk, then submit the allowance through their expenses," wrote Brittany Forsyth, the tech company's chief talent officer, in an email.

Wattpad, a Toronto-based storytelling platform, provided its workers with a list of items they could purchase while working remotely, wrote Kiel Hume, communications lead, in an email. That included a computer mouse, desks, monitors and office chairs.

"We also allowed employees to request additional items that could support productivity or comfort on a case-by-case basis."

Both companies plan to continue allowing staff to work from home to some degree beyond the pandemic.

Shopify's CEO Tobi Lutke announced on his Twitter account that the company is "a digital by default company" with offices closed until 2021, after which "most will permanently work remotely."

Wattpad has no plans to close or change existing offices, but will support employees who wish to keep working from home full- or part-time post-pandemic, wrote Hume.

"Like many companies, we're still exploring what the future could look like and haven't finalized plans for our teams after COVID-19, so it would be premature to weigh in on how specific policies could work," he said.

Aside from upfront costs to set up an appropriate workspace, there may be ongoing monthly costs such as increased utility, internet or telephone expenses.

"It kind of boils down to who's going to bare the cost of all these folks working from home," said Patrick McCay, partner, tax at McCarthy Tetrault.

It will likely be split between the employee and employer to some degree, and each may be able to deduct certain expenses from income, he said. Employees who permanently use their home as their office may be able to deduct certain expenses from their employment income.

As these types of arrangements become more permanent, some employees may decide they want to live in a different city, province or even country.

"I think the level of tolerance for those kinds of arrangements will really depend on the employer and the nature of their business," said Lawson. Some businesses may want to gather their employees for in-person meetings on a weekly or otherwise regular basis, he noted, and not all jobs may be conducive to working remotely permanently.

About four out of ten, or 38.9 per cent, of Canadians work in jobs that can plausibly be done at home, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

From a tax perspective, moving within Canada is relatively common and straightforward, said McCay, but relocating beyond the nation's borders creates a number of implications companies and employees would have to consider.

While many companies are in the early days of determining where their staff can work from in the future, the trend to more flexible workspaces seems to be in the works, said Karen Pastakia, partner, human capital at Deloitte Canada.

Many companies over the past 11 or so weeks have seen a workplace shift they would have never imagined logistically or philosophically possible before, she said, and some are seeing good productivity and engagement from their at-home workforce.

"It's an opportunity to really sort of push the boundaries on what could we do on a more sustained basis and how might we need to rethink on a more permanent basis how we do some of this work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.

Aleksandra Sagna, The Canadian Press

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