Many noted that remote work in a pandemic is remote work under exceptional circumstances, particularly for those who suddenly transitioned. This is remote work in a single context: the home is likely the only option as coffee shops and other external spaces remain unavailable. In cases where the necessary technology and infrastructure is not provided by employers, workers are met with the challenge of quickly assembling a home office—often with limited space—as well as managing childcare, education, and other caregiving responsibilities. Workers are also susceptible to mental health issues, such as loneliness and isolation. Such conditions are not ideal in fostering a productive work environment, especially in the context of delivering services such as teaching, paramedical services, or services that rely on overburdened VPN’s blocking access to workplace intranet.
In our research, we find that while some occupations are able to transition their workers to a work-from-home model, workers in occupations without remote work infrastructure are not able to do so. For example, we estimate that almost all workers in a specialized middle management role, such as financial managers and administrative services managers, who didn’t work from home have now shifted to remote work, creating little to no employment impact on this occupational group. In contrast, other occupational groups in health care, where only those workers who are either deemed essential or who are already working from home, are able to retain their employment. Such trends are also evident in service occupations, such as barbers.
To understand how the transition to remote work has been taking place in Canada during COVID-19, we focus on three main data sets:
- To measure actual changes in employment for different occupations, we relied on the Labour Force Survey, specifically the February and April vintages.
- To contextualize and account for workers working in an essential occupation (and therefore an exception to this analysis), we relied on the list of Canadian essential occupations published by the Labour Market Information Council.
- To estimate the share of workers in each occupational group that has already been working from home, we used data from the 2016 Canadian Census, as compiled by (Baileys et al., 2020).
Our assumption is that workers who were not successful in shifting their work to home and are not working in an essential occupation have likely either lost their jobs or are on a “zero-hour” employment. We use “zero-hour” employment to describe a situation in which employers retain workers even when those workers are not actively working. Such an arrangement can be the result of federal support programs, such as the emergency wage subsidies program, that are designed to help businesses retain their employees. Correspondingly, we will also restrict our measure of real employment changes by looking at workers who reported working at least 1 during the reference week.
An important point to consider is that the third data piece is only available for labour dynamics in British Columbia. In producing this analysis we make an assumption that the share of workers in BC who work from home for each occupation in 2016 can generalize reasonably to the same share nationally in 2020. Additionally, we also assume that the relative share of workers across 4 digit occupations, when aggregated at the 2 digit occupations are relatively consistent between 2016 and 2020.
The occupational group with the largest disparity between the estimated employment change and real employment change was specialized middle management occupations (for example, financial managers and administrative service managers). If only those in essential occupations and working from home in 2016 were still working, 84% of workers in February, or more than 460,000 workers would have lost their job. However, we find that the employment level for this occupational group was virtually unchanged, producing an increase of only 0.4% between February and April. This means that most workers in this occupation were able to shift to a work-from-home model. We find similar levels of differences for workers in occupations such as professional occupations in natural or applied sciences and technical occupations in natural or applied sciences. These two occupations form the bulk of Tech occupations from our previous defining research in Who Are Canada Tech Workers?, and we find that more than 75% of workers in these occupations didn’t work from home previously and are now working from home.
Educational services is an occupational group that illustrates the point that remote work, while possible, does not mean ideal for these workers. Our estimates show that if none of these workers are able to shift to working from home, over 95% of professional educators would have lost their jobs, compared to the 20.9% reduction in workers working in this occupation between February and April. This means that most workers in professional occupations in educational services—such as primary teachers, secondary teachers, and university professors—were able to transition to remote work. However, a torrent of anecdotes have come from teachers, parents, and students themselves at all levels to comment on the reduced effectiveness of such an arrangement.
Occupations where the estimated employment reduction is closely matched with real observed employment reduction tend to be medical occupations. For example, a 22% employment reduction is observed between February and April for workers in assisting occupations in support of health services, while the model estimates a 21% reduction. Similarly, there are 34.6% less workers in technical occupations in health in April than in February, compared to our model estimate of 41%. Not all health occupations saw a reduction in employment, however. Professional occupations in nursing saw little change in employment between February and April, where the model also estimates no changes in their employment.
There are other occupations outside of health and medical industries that also saw minor differences between the estimated change in employment and real observed change in employment between February and April. For example, the model estimates a 34% reduction in employment for workers in middle management occupations in retail and wholesale trade and customer services while the real observed reduction in this occupation is 31%. Similar trends are observed for workers in transport and heavy equipment operations and related maintenance occupations and service supervisors and specialized service occupations
For many workers who are able to continue working in the pandemic, this is likely the first time they’ve operated from home for an extended period of time. We’re not yet at the stage where we can understand the full set of challenges and opportunities of moving work to a remote model, although some firms—primarily in technology—have signaled their intention to turn remote work into a default mode of operation beyond the pandemic. Regardless of its persistence, as policymakers plan to re-open the economy, an occupational-level understanding of whether or not remote work is possible is invaluable in developing policy that ensures a safe return to work for workers without the remote work option.