The Big Shift – the future of work

by Tracey Lindeman

photography by Chris Robinson & Sofie Kirk

The future of work is universal daycare so women can get back to work.

Wait. The future of work is making sure people who lose jobs to automation can be effectively retrained and redeployed into the workforce.

No, that’s not it. Maybe: The future of work is making sure all Canadians have access to a baseline income and workers’ benefits, including health insurance and paid sick days?

In fact, the future of work – and the future of workers – is unclear as we (hopefully) begin to round the corner on COVID-19. Will white-collar employees go back to an office? Will contact centre staff be allowed to stay home, but with constant webcam surveillance? Will essential workers lose their hazard pay and have to scramble to make up the difference?

According to a survey from ADP Canada, 45 per cent of Canadians would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week, and more than 25 per cent said they would like to have flex hours.

“One thing that I really hope continues is organizations continue to be much more open to remote work and flexible work arrangements,” says Winny Shen, associate professor of organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“Organizations have always argued that there were limits on the kinds of jobs that could be done remotely, and concerns about people’s ability to work remotely. But I think this pandemic has really highlighted just how many jobs can be done remotely, and many of them very effectively,” says Shen, emphasizing that certain people, including those with disabilities or a greater need for flexibility, such as caregivers, could see greater workforce inclusion.

If this big shift materializes, it will have to be better than a return to business as usual, she adds. But whether we are up for that challenge is another question altogether.


WHEN THE PANDEMIC STRUCK, some people lost nothing. Switching into work-from-home mode, without a drop in income, has been the story for a lot of white-collar workers and other professionals whose jobs can be done from pretty much anywhere with an internet connection.  

Some people, on the other hand, lost everything.

Industry group Restaurants Canada says more than 10,000 restaurants have closed since March 2020, and another 50 per cent are at risk of closure if conditions don’t improve. Bars and other drinking establishments saw sales decline by 48 per cent last year. An Ontario industry group for beauty and personal care services says their line of work has been “decimated” by revolving-door lockdowns and COVID restrictions. In 2020, 58,000 small businesses became inactive, and another 181,000 are at serious risk of closure in 2021, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Each business affected is a person’s life savings and a staff’s livelihood, in industries that are largely known for low wages and insecure work, usually without private health insurance benefits, and where women and people of colour have especially high levels of representation.  

Gig workers are often perceived as having autonomy and flexibility. But their choices are constrained

Armine Yalnizyan (BA Hons. – Glendon ’83) is a member of the federal government’s task force on women in the economy, and she says that recovering from the recession and massive disruption to work that COVID created is an opportunity and a challenge to make a more equitable future for workers:

“The people who lost their jobs, the industries that were declared non-essential, were often very marginal industries – marginal defined as marginal profitability, like five per cent or less profit margins. So we’re looking at personal services, we’re looking at restaurants and bars, we’re looking at hotels and accommodations.”

With losses for some in the 50 to 75 per cent range, plus the heightened costs associated with abiding by provincial health and safety protocols, the present – never mind the future – of work for the most economically vulnerable sectors is bleak and fraught with heartache. Continues Yalnizyan, “We’ve got a bunch of companies that have ended. As Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said, there’s been a lot of deaths, but they just haven’t held their funerals yet.”

Rollbacks on women in the workforce have been particularly stark. In Alberta, the employment rate of women in 2020 was the same as in 1984. In Ontario, it was 1993. Canada-wide, it was 1996, according to Yalnizyan, who is also the Atkinson fellow on the future of workers, focusing on automation, women and workforce aging.  

In other words, the economic effects of COVID-19 have not been the same for all workers, making it difficult to come up with an answer to the question of what the future of work will look like. But we can certainly try to imagine a better future for most people.


AT UNITO, a Montreal startup that makes workflow and collaboration management software, they know the future of work must be flexible. That’s why they shifted their perspective on work schedules and remuneration when COVID-19 forced people out of the office.

Employees there can work a condensed workweek, can choose to swap out a weekday for a Saturday or Sunday and can even choose their working hours.

I think this pandemic has really highlighted just how many jobs can be done remotely, and many of them very effectively

As Marie-Rose Rioux, the company’s CFO and vice-president of business operations, says, employees are asked to be available during the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. window to take a call or attend an all-hands meeting if necessary, but are otherwise free to work whenever they want. “But when you do your work, that’s whenever you’re productive,” says Rioux. “We have people who love to work at night. So be it; work at night. As long as it’s not work that needs to be done in synchronous collaboration with someone else, that’s fine.”

Professor Winny Shen. Photography by Sofie Kirk.

Rioux also notes that salaries at the company are determined by a compensation matrix and are transparent, meaning everyone knows what their colleagues are earning. The company also raised base pay for positions overwhelmingly held by women, to help account for systemic wage gaps and to improve diversity. “The whole company loved it,” says Rioux. “I believe people are happier [that] we can retain our staff better. I believe that we can attract staff better.”

Although it was initially developed for internal use, Unito has templatized and made public (for free) its Better Workplace Toolkit, to help other companies create better conditions for workers. Rioux suggests companies start their programs small and build them over time. “The bigger it is, the more difficult,” she advises. “Another recommendation is, it’s not a program that you install; it’s a mindset, and you need to invest in that.”

The global health crisis created the opportunity for companies like Unito to push for flexibility. How many organizations are true-blue converts to a new way of working and thinking about work will depend on how the pandemic fallout is examined.

Professor Shen says it’s critical to evaluate how women and people of colour have had their health, livelihoods and job security disproportionately affected if we want to learn from this moment and make a more equitable future for workers going forward.

“We need to make sure we don’t sweep it under the rug. We really have to take this opportunity to examine some of our attitudes and our biases, and also, in order to prevent something like this moving forward, we really have to make some real systemic changes,” she says. “Those are hard conversations to have, and we have to have them.”

It’s important, when considering equitable methods of recovery, to account for how different this recession is from the last one. Yalnizyan says the growing gig economy and taskification of work enabled by automation and mobile tech innovation is something we did not feel the full brunt of following the 2007–2008 market crash, but will feel more harshly now. According to Statistics Canada, this workforce grew from 5.5 per cent of the population in 2005 to 8.2 per cent in 2016, and it rose higher for women than it did for men. The figures from 2016 onward are still unclear, another Statistics Canada report notes, but what is certain is that gig work is here to stay.

As a recent analysis in Policy Options points out, “Gig workers are often perceived as having autonomy and flexibility. But their choices are constrained. For example, on some gig work platforms, price algorithms make some shifts more profitable than others. Gig workers might only turn a profit by working those particular shifts, undermining the notion that they can freely choose their schedule.”

Yalnizyan warns that, without policy interventions, gig work will play a large role in further destabilizing the workforce.

Some tasks include rides delivered by Uber or Lyft drivers, food deliveries from Skip the Dishes or Foodora, hosting someone in your Airbnb or completing home maintenance chores via TaskRabbit. Other tasks are clicking a button to confirm a picture of an elephant is, indeed, a picture of an elephant. “Whether that task takes a few minutes, or whether it takes a few months, it’s still not a job. It’s a contract to do a specific thing. You get paid by the checkmark, which can be just pennies a checkmark, and you just layer them up to make money,” says Yalnizyan. “We do not deal with, in our labour codes, this gray version of ‘worker’ very well: you’re either an employee or you’re self-employed.”

Reforming labour codes – and modifying the Canadian social safety net to account for the modernization of work – needs to happen, and soon, to ensure this growing workforce has protections, and even just has its basic needs as workers, and as humans, met in the post-COVID economy.


SO, WHAT does the future of work look like?

“COVID has been a great pair of glasses to look through at inequities built over centuries,” says Merle Jacobs (BA Hons. ’79, MA ’88, PhD ’00), an associate professor and current Chair of York’s Department of Equity Studies.

Greater flexibility for office workers could mean the conversion of empty offices into residential units – potentially good for the rental housing market, but perhaps not great for office cleaners or service industry providers in downtown cores. Working from home may be some people’s dream and others’ worst-case scenario. People who traded their jobs for caregiving of children or sick relatives may find it harder and harder to get back into the workforce as the cost and scarcity of outsourcing that care climbs.  

To make a more equitable future for workers, then, policies on worker protections, compensation and accessibility of caregiving need to be implemented. But it’s also more than that. Minds need to be changed about what work is, and how work is different for different people.

“That’s where the political class – globally, not just in Canada – has got to see a new invention of how civil society lives, how we live in society,” says Jacobs.

That mindset has changed over time, Jacobs continues. It used to be unfathomable that women could work at all. Now, we are talking about getting more women back into the workforce to save the economy.

“Society has transitioned, and there’s nothing to say it can’t again,” Jacobs says. “But – there has to be a will.”  

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