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Mind the gap: The divide between onsite and remote work

Instead of debating where we work, what if we asked a different question: What work model would help your workforce thrive?

Published on

February 10, 2023


Almost three years after the start of the pandemic, we’re still in this mega-social experiment, and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Some of us (especially leaders) long for the days of our pre-pandemic workplace, the onsite collaboration, exchange of ideas and lively chit-chat by the water cooler. Others (mostly employees) prefer working from home at least some of the time, skipping the commute, reducing costs and connecting with colleagues online.

Regardless of where you stand, you likely have strong arguments on at least one side of the onsite, remote and hybrid debate, fuelled by personal preferences, your stage of life and career…and reams of data.

But what if, instead of debating where we work, we asked a different question: What work model would help your workforce thrive?

Because, as Satya Nadella, Chairman and CEO of Microsoft noted, “Thriving employees are what will give organizations a competitive advantage in today’s dynamic economic environment.”¹

How did we get here?

The workplace has come a long way since people began gathering in rooms to do “intellectual work” in the 1600s.²

Today’s 9-to-5 work model was first invented by American labour unions in the 1800s, when the average person worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week, following the typical farmer’s schedule (with Sundays off).

In 1926, the 9-to-5 model was popularized in an industrial setting by Henry Ford, who coupled it with a new five-day, Monday-to-Friday workweek. Ford reasoned that a two-day weekend would not only give his workers more rest to do such a physical job (which meant higher productivity) but also urge them to buy more cars. After all, two free days meant more time to travel by car!

Throughout the 1900s, this same “M-F, 9-5” model was then applied in a business setting, where white-collar or “knowledge workers,” lacking digital connectivity, had no choice but to commute to physical offices to exchange ideas and accomplish their day-to-day tasks.

Fast-forward to today. Office workers are more digitally connected than ever before, so the choice of where to work isn’t as clear, especially for the 40% of workers whose jobs can be done remotely. Since they have the ability to do their job from home, many are questioning the purpose of return-to-office. And their employers are wondering how a remote model could possibly be sustainable long-term.

And there it is, the “Great Workplace Debate” that lingers... on and on... in boardrooms across North America.

The pros and cons of remote, hybrid and onsite

There are strong opinions on all sides of this modern-day tug-of-war:

  • When given the chance to work remotely, 87% of employees take it, according to McKinsey³. And it’s so important to them, other studies have found⁴ they’d even take a pay cut to keep it.
  • On the employer side, opinions vary widely: Recent surveys found as many as 9 out of 10 companies⁵ plan to bring employees back to the office in 2023, while some (mostly large tech) companies are committing to a fully remote policy.⁶

One thing is certain, as Canada faces an unprecedented labour shortage and employers and employees look to cut costs amid rising inflation, offering more flexibility and remote work can mean attracting and retaining more top talent.

Pros - Onsite Work

In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors,” said Bob Iger, CEO, Disney, in an internal memo requesting that all employees return to onsite work four days a week as of March 1, 2023.⁷

The arguments in favour of onsite work range from measuring productivity and sparking collaboration to boosting mental health and reinvigorating our cities:

  • Transparency and productivity – In a remote setting, how do leaders know if an employee is contributing in a meaningful way, or possibly overwhelmed with too much work and in need of extra support? A recent Microsoft report⁸ found a big disconnect between the portion of leaders who are confident their remote/hybrid team is productive (12%) vs. the portion of employees who say they are (87%). Some jobs are difficult to quantify.
  • Collaboration and innovation – How can remote/distributed teams collaborate online? Can employees ignite that same spark of creativity from their home offices? Leaders like Disney CEO Bob Iger⁹, Twitter’s Elon Musk¹⁰ and Goldman Sachs’s David Solomon¹¹ don’t think so. They’ve all called workers back onsite, fearing that collaboration and innovation will stagnate with a remote/hybrid workforce.
  • In-person mentorship can boost careers – When working onsite, younger generations (like Gen Z) have more opportunities to connect in person with mentors and senior leaders, learn from them and grow in their careers.
  • Mental health – Humans need connection, and at a time when many of us are lonelier than before the pandemic, leaders fear that remote/hybrid work doesn’t offer enough opportunities for employees—many of whom have never met in person—to build strong relationships. This lack of connection has been linked to a host of long-term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Read more about the power of positive connections on our blog.
  • Streamlined work model – Onsite is streamlined—everyone is together in one place. Hybrid is more complex and difficult for both employees and employers to manage. Employees struggle with two work locations, two sets of child arrangements and transit/parking passes that aren’t economically feasible on a part-time basis. Employers struggle with how to lead and accommodate two dispersed groups (onsite and remote) at the same time.
  • A vital downtown core is vital for everyone – Regardless of where you live, the downtown cores of major centres like Toronto and Vancouver are economic engines that drive prosperity for everyone. In fact, the Toronto Region is the largest contributor to the Canadian economy, responsible for 20% of Canada’s GDP, so it’s critical to keep it healthy. The mayors of major centres like New York and Toronto have urged employers to call their employees back to work, saying that empty buildings and deserted downtowns are holding back their city’s pandemic recovery. Beyond the issue of employers paying for empty real estate, major cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa are missing transit revenue, and small businesses in the downtown core are missing weekday customers, with foot traffic down by as much as 46% (Toronto) compared to pre-pandemic.¹²

Pros – Remote/Hybrid Work

When given the chance to work remotely, 87% of employees take it. - McKinsey¹³

There are a host of positives associated with remote/hybrid work, including:

  • Hire anywhere – In today’s labour market, remote work enables employers to hire nationwide, dipping into untapped and much larger pools of candidates with unique, hard-to-find skills. Our job application rate is 2x greater for remote positions.
  • Increase equity – Remote/hybrid work enables more women and parents/caregivers to participate in today's economy. A recent Abacus survey¹⁴ found that if given the choice, women would work from home 65% of the time (vs. 52% for men), roughly the same split as working moms (64%) and working dads (51%). And for anyone with mobility issues or accessibility barriers, remote work has been a game-changer, boosting employment levels to a record high of 37.8% in 2022, according to one US study.¹⁵ It could also determine whether some people who left the workforce during the pandemic – such as women who served as primary unpaid caregivers, older workers and those suffering from long COVID—decide to come back.
  • Boost retention: Surveys have found as many as 80% of remote employees¹⁶ would sooner quit their job than return to onsite work full-time. And offering remote/hybrid options is especially important for retaining younger workers who moved cities during the pandemic. According to a 2022 Environics study,¹⁷ 47% of respondents aged 18 to 34 reported changing cities while working remotely.
  • Cost of living - As inflation skyrockets, remote work enables employees to save money normally spent on commuting and lunches. It also provides the option of living far from the office, in communities with lower housing costs. Note: Hybrid work does not provide these same benefits—you still need to commute and live close by.
  • Physical and mental health – Remote/hybrid work enables workers to have more balance in their lives, with more time to spend with family and friends and prioritize physical and mental health.

Which side is winning?

Amid rumblings of a recession, and with growing layoffs and rising inflation, there’s talk of the pendulum swinging back in favour of employers who want staff back onsite.¹⁸ But arguments and forecasts aside, if you focus only on the key question, “What work model would help today’s workforce thrive?” maybe it’s not about “winning” at all.

Bringing workers back to the office to watch them work isn’t reason enough (especially in a hybrid setting where onsite workers will still need to meet with home-based colleagues over video). In this case, rather than seeing increased collaboration, employers may only see increased attrition.

The key is being intentional about your work model. How will onsite, hybrid or remote work help workers thrive?

Key considerations for 2023

The best work model maximizes your ability to attract and retain the talent you need to support business growth. And in 2023, this means considering the following elements:

  • Make onsite work intentional: According to the Microsoft study, “73% of employees say they need a better reason to go into the office than company expectations.”¹⁹ So, bring them together onsite for collaborative project work, brainstorming sessions, one-on-one meetings, in-person learning sessions, and team lunches and meetings. Employees say they would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there (73%) or if their work friends were there (74%).²⁰
  • Foster opportunities to make work friends: Many of us have lost our conversational mojo. Offer ways for employees to connect regardless of where they work. For example, we host in-person, small community gatherings at coffee shops and dog parks. Read more on our blog.
  • Rethink how you measure productivity: It’s not just about getting more work done but also the quality of that work. Create and reinforce a culture that rewards employees’ impact, not just their activity. If you only measure activity, you risk employees “live-action role-playing”²⁰ their jobs to appear busy vs. actively driving meaningful work.
  • When possible, flex it: Employees are looking for flexible everything in the workplace (location, hours, days worked, etc.), so whatever flexibility is possible for you, dig deep and uncover it. At Altis, we’re trialing Flex Days, enabling our team members to take every tenth day as a paid personal day that involves the bare minimum amount of work and connectivity. Contact us to learn more.
  • Offer a new take on time off: Some employers are allowing workers to choose their workdays, so they can better support family needs (e.g., Wednesday to Sunday), or allowing alternative schedules (i.e., 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.). Others are offering Wellness Days instead of Sick Days, to allow for alternative reasons to take off a not-so-good day. Job-sharing and sabbaticals are also unique ways to be flexible.
  • Retain the “sandwich generation”—particularly women: Offering greater flexibility could help retain team members who fall into the “sandwich generation” (workers aged 45 to 64 who take care of aging parents and raise young kids). This cohort is growing (currently 55% of working-age Canadians), and increasingly stretched thin. Surveys report 30% are considering quitting their job and more than 50% wish they had more support from their employer. Women are more likely to assume the role of caregiver (79% versus 22% of men)²².

As we saw with the gradual rollout of the Monday-Friday, 9-5 work model, change takes time. This debate will likely last another 10 or even 20 years, as employers test new work models and adjust whenever they don’t land. For example, those who go fully remote may regret the impact on their culture; while those fully onsite might miss employees who quit for greater flexibility.

As this debate continues, maybe it’s less about winning and more about seizing this opportunity for change – and refining what our workplaces can look like in the future.

Who is the new Henry Ford, the one who will help define our future workplace model? The key is to keep the communication channels open, listen to each other, adjust incrementally and measure the results.

This way, we can shape what’s possible in the workplace for years to come while creating a model that helps your workforce thrive.


¹ Microsoft. 2022. Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?

² Fast Company. 2021. Hate the thought of returning to your cubicle? Thank medieval monks.

³ McKinsey & Company. 2022. Americans are embracing flexible work—and they want more of it.

⁴ Business News Daily. 2023. Employees Would Trade Pay for Flexible Workplace.

⁵ Resume Builder. 2023. 9 in 10 companies will require employees to work from office in 2023.

⁶ Flex Jobs. 25 Companies Switching to Permanent Remote Work-From-Home Jobs.

⁷ Fortune. 2023. Bob Iger just put his foot down and told Disney employees to come back into the office 4 days a week as the remote work wars rage on.

⁸ Microsoft. 2022. Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?

⁹ Fortune. 2023. Bob Iger just put his foot down and told Disney employees to come back into the office 4 days a week as the remote work wars rage on.

¹⁰ Commercial Observer. 2022. Elon Musk Calls Twitter Workers Back to the Office Full Time

¹¹ CNBC. 2022. Goldman Sachs wants workers back in office 5 days a week—‘a stampede’ of other companies could follow, experts say

¹² CTV News. 2023. 'It's not bouncing back:' Workers continue to return to downtown Toronto but recovery lags behind some cities

¹³ McKinsey & Company. 2022. Americans are embracing flexible work—and they want more of it.

¹⁴ Abacus Data. 2023. Flexibility is now table stakes for Canadian workers, especially women.

¹⁵ Cision Newswire. 2023. People with disabilities reached new employment levels in 2022, outperforming their peers without disabilities

¹⁶ HR Reporter. 2022. Workers looking for big pay bump if forced back to the office full time

¹⁷ BNN Bloomberg. 2022. Most Canadians prefer working from home, survey finds

¹⁸ Reuters. 2022. Why a recession in 2023 could see remote workers return to the office

¹⁹ Microsoft. 2022. Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?

²⁰ Microsoft. 2022. Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?

²¹ Microsoft. 2021. 54%: New Strategies for Finding Balance at Work

²² Human Resources Professionals Association. 2022. Why the Sandwich Generation is So Stressed Out and How HR Can Help

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