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Amal Attar-Guzman: A young professional navigates the new world of remote work

Commentary

On New Year’s Eve in 2019, I, with a bunch of my friends, loudly sang “Auld Lang Syne” into the cold winter air. The 2010s were coming to a close and like billions of people across the world, we all loudly claimed that 2020 would be our year. 

Like many other young people, especially university and college students who were about to graduate, we were excited and felt optimistic about the new decade and truly starting our professional careers and the adventures we would have. 

At that place in time, we just felt that our lives really were about to begin. 

Of course, we could have never anticipated that two months later the World Health Organization would declare COVID-19 a global pandemic, essentially causing society-wide lockdowns. There were people finishing their degrees and schooling at home, working from home, or just being laid off altogether. 

Graduating via Zoom was definitely not in the plan, nor was getting rejected by hundreds of employers who didn’t want to take a chance on a new graduate in a period of such uncertainty.

Still, I was luckier than most. I was ultimately able to find contract work with the Munk Debates during the latter part of 2020. That was better than the 20.1 percent of my age group who were unemployed that year. This then led me to a summer contract with The Hub the following year, which has since turned into full-time employment.  

Thanks to remote work, in other words, I was at least able to get my career started and earn some sort of a living during a worldwide pandemic and a massive recession. I was able to do so in the comfort of my home while safe from getting sick. 

Now, working remotely for the last two years and having experience working in person in an office, I can say that remote work has had a lot of benefits. I enjoy the calm that it provides. Being able to work from home has meant that my life is less on the go than it used to be, including early mornings and long commute times.

In terms of productivity, I’ve been able to keep it up while working from home. According to polling, this is consistent with the experiences of others. Nearly a quarter of working professionals in Canada (23 percent) say they are equally productive whether they work at home or at the office, and 42 percent actually said that they even accomplish more at home, according to a 2022 report by a leading human resource firm.

Furthermore, it has given me the freedom to explore and maintain my physical, mental, and emotional health without being in a confined office space solely focusing on work. This has been especially crucial in the face of a string of unexpected and difficult events in my life including three funerals in the span of a few months. Because of remote work, it was relatively easy to pass work along logistically to my colleagues since the structure and work framework was already in place. 

Also, given the fact that I am not comfortable showing my emotions, it made things a bit easier to explain the situation to my team behind a computer screen or over the phone. It was far easier to deal with these difficult personal circumstances in a remote work setting.

Notwithstanding these benefits, there have been some major drawbacks to working remotely as a young professional. 

I’m hoping this confession doesn’t get me too much in trouble, but here it is: far too often, I start my day in my bed, on my laptop, and stay there much longer than I need to, despite creating an office/recording space at home. 

Even though we’re more than two years into the work-home-from experience and I should have instilled the habits to actually be quote-on-quote “dressed for work,” much too often, if I’m not going to be on camera or recording a podcast episode, I am in my pyjamas far longer than I would like (guys, please don’t be mad!). 

Furthermore, while tons of studies have shown the positive effects of working from home, as an extremely extroverted person staying at home in front of a computer for the most part of the day can get extremely tiresome and uninspiring. And while I have weekly calls with my team and we always check in on each other and meet people via Zoom or email, I do miss sitting physically beside coworkers just getting our work done or meeting new, interesting people in person. There’s something about being physically with someone doing the same work as you or meeting people in real life that just motivates you to get your work done and come up with new and interesting ideas or projects. 

Way too often, I feel like I am in limbo thinking about my professional future and whether I am going to spend the next 40 years of my life working at home in front of a computer. Even though I know that may not be the case, once you’re in that slump it’s hard to get out of it. 

Moreover, opportunities for personal interaction, networking, and serendipitous meetings can be scarce. For young professionals breaking into the job market, especially those coming from low-income backgrounds, or even those who come from first-generation immigrant families, networking is extremely important to establish strong professional relationships with your team and others in your field or sector. Without it, there is less of a likelihood of upward professional mobility, which in turn affects economic opportunities and earnings potential in the long run. 

Now that the end of COVID-19 is “in sight,” there are renewed opportunities for meeting people or networking, but the opportunity cost of two years removed from the typical work environment is hard to overcome. There’s also the basic challenge of reintegrating from the virtual world of Zoom coffee chats to in-person interactions.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention issues of race, gender, and other identities in this debate, especially since I am a racialized woman. One comment we received in response to our editorial on these issues highlighted that racialized and marginalized people have reported better working environments and conditions given to the lower likelihood and opportunity of being harassed in the workplace. 

This seems like something of a Pyrrhic victory. Surely the answer to ongoing issues of workplace prejudice or discrimination cannot be that we minimize our collective interactions. That’s especially unfair to young minority professionals seeking fulfilling careers like their other colleagues.

Look, it is healthy to have your own workspace in the comfort of your home where you can focus and get work done productively. But it is also healthy as social beings to work in person with your colleagues, where ideas can be shared and we can inspire one another to do and be better.

Is it possible that some sort of golden mean can be found for those working in my industry or similar ones? I don’t know. What I do know is that as the pandemic slows down, I am not going to spend the rest of my 20s staying at home and not taking advantage of opportunities to meet people, experience new things, and live my life.

Sean Speer: The working class isn’t who you think it is

Commentary

If in the context of the 2015 federal election Canadian politics became fixated on “the middle class and those hoping to join it,” then the new and emerging fixation seems to be the working class. Everyone is talking about it these days. 

New Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has spoken early in his leadership about “fight[ing] for the working class.” The New Democrats have similarly recommitted themselves to being a “credible champion for working-class people.” And the Trudeau government recently announced inflation relief measures targeting low-income and working-class households. 

These political developments caused one left-wing economist to ask: “Will defining “working class” be the 2020s version of defining the “middle class?”

A new paper (co-authored by Renze Nauta, Sosina Bezu, and me) published by the Cardus Institute aims to answer this question. It uses a definition of the working class—namely, someone who works in a non-management, professional, or technical job that generally doesn’t require post-secondary education—to understand who comprises Canada’s working class, what jobs they do, and how they’ve done over the past 20 years or so. Our basic goal is to ensure that the growing political interest in the working class is rooted in facts rather than nostalgia. 

What do we find? Today’s working class is more female than male, more likely to be an immigrant or racial minority, much more likely to be in service-sector jobs than “blue-collar” jobs, and frequently has more educational experience or credentials than is typically required for its jobs. 

Let’s start with its overall size. While Canada’s working class is shrinking (its share of the working population has fallen from 42 percent in 2000 to 34 percent today), it’s still the largest share of workers in the Canadian economy. There were 6.5 million working-class Canadians in 2021. If they were a singular voting bloc, they would have won the popular vote in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Of these working-class Canadians, for most of the past 20 years, more than half have been women. Women (35 percent) are also more likely than male workers (33 percent) to be in working-class jobs. The same goes for immigrants or visible minorities. Just under half of visible minorities in the Canadian workforce are in working-class occupations compared to 39 percent for non-visible minorities. 

There’s been a major shift in the type of jobs that working-class Canadians do. The old image of blue-collar men on the manufacturing assembly line is no longer representative. Today nearly half of the working class is in sales and service jobs such as retail clerk, food counter attendant, or personal support worker. This is up from just over 30 percent in 1990 and is more than double the labour market as a whole. As one American policy scholar has described these trends: the modern working class has gone from “making stuff” to “serving and caring for people.” 

One of our major findings is that even though we define working class based on occupations that generally don’t require post-secondary experience or credentials, 53 percent of working-class Canadians (excluding full-time students) actually have post-secondary certificates, diplomas, or degrees. This may reflect various factors including individual preferences, foreign credential issues, a skills mismatch, or even employer discrimination. The upshot though is a prima facie case of large-scale underemployment that carries opportunity costs for individuals and the economy as a whole. 

These costs could be quite significant. Consider, for instance, that working-class Canadians earn, on average, 42 percent less per hour than those in non-working-class jobs. More than 60 percent of the working class earns less than $800 per week compared to just 20 percent for members of the management, professional, or technical classes. 

These insights from the data are crucial for politicians in pursuit of the working class. Although it’s a positive development that we’re seeing greater attention paid to this undervalued group of voters, the political class needs to meet them where actually they live and work. 

This means discarding outdated stereotypes of a working class mostly comprised of male, blue-collar, often unionized workers in the goods-producing economy and replacing it with a modern picture of the working class mostly comprised of women and visible minorities with some post-secondary credentials working in service-sector jobs. Think of a home-care worker instead of a General Motors factory worker. 

The policy consequences of this shift in our understanding of the modern working class are significant. The interests, concerns, and aspirations of a female personal supporter worker necessarily differs from those of a male worker in the manufacturing sector. A modern working-class agenda must account for these differences. It will need, for instance, to speak concretely about issues like health and dental benefits, labour standards, housing, childcare, and immigration. 

It’s too early to tell whether the newfound fixation on working-class Canadians will be a durable feature of our politics. That will ultimately depend on if the political parties are able to translate their political overtures into concrete policies responsive to the needs of the modern working class. Those efforts will need to rely on facts rather than nostalgia to guide them.