New book co-edited by Professor Valerio De Stefano explores the future of remote work

Professor Valerio De Stefano
Professor Valerio De Stefano

Canadian companies that force employees back to the office in a bid to reinvigorate downtown economies are misguided and will ultimately find the move backfires, says labour law professor Valerio De Stefano, the co-editor of a new book on the future of remote work.

“In general,” he added, “it can be said that remote work is here to stay because it’s beneficial for both employees and companies.”

De Stefano, who serves as Canada Research Chair in Innovation, Law and Society, is the co-editor of The Future of Remote Work, published by the independent, Brussels-based European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). The book is also edited by Nicola Contouris, a labour law professor at University College London and director of research for the institute, ETUI senior researcher Agnieszka Piasna, a labour sociologist, and labour lawyer Silvia Rainone, who is also a researcher with ETUI.

More than 20 authors contributed to the book from a variety of disciplines, including lawyers, economists and sociologists.

“An important insight that emerges from the multidimensional approach of this volume,” reads a publisher’s summary, “is that the establishment of a worker centred future of (remote) work requires the exploration and development of constructive pathways at different levels and in different directions involving the role of regulators, courts, trade unions, researchers, businesses and workers themselves.”

“It’s a very timely book,” said De Stefano. “It addresses the phenomenon of remote work by looking at it from a variety of very disciplined angles.”

According to Statistics Canada, the percentage of employed Canadians who work from home for all or part of their work week now stands at just over 25 per cent, down from a high of 40 per cent during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerous companies, such as Royal Bank of Canada and Amazon Canada have mandated their employees to return to the office for at least part of the week. But in a competitive job market, said De Stefano, that could come back to haunt them.

“Companies that want to retain talent will probably have to deal with it,” he predicted. “So it won’t be possible to switch to a pre-pandemic situation for most companies because they risk losing the most talented people.”

But unlike the first panicked months of the pandemic, said De Stefano, remote work going forward must not become “lock-down work,” workspaces must be adequate and workers should not be continually connected to the office.

“If we want to reap the benefits of remote work,” he added, “we have to get away from the constraints that we had under the pandemic and put more rigid boundaries between work and personal time.”

This, in turn, said De Stefano, will require giving employees more autonomy and creating a stronger spirit of trust between workers and their employers.

In the early pandemic, he noted, remote work was accompanied by a push by employers to introduce invasive surveillance software. Some of this so-called algorithmic management technology – often powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – can record video or take random screen shots, among other things. But surveillance technology can cause employee stress, anxiety and burnout, he added, and can actually reduce productivity when workers end up spending more time trying to game the system.

De Stefano said that the rise of remote and hybrid work has brought distinct benefits – like helping companies to trim their rental budgets, cutting the cost of commuting for workers and reducing the number of cars on the road, thus aiding the environment. While the negative impact on downtown economies is real, he added, it is incumbent on cities to find creative solutions for vacant office space.

“It would certainly be a loss to society if we decided to go back to a pre-pandemic scenario because we don’t know what to do with our downtowns,” he said. “That’s probably going to backfire.”