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Should I stay, or should I go? With pandemic waves crashing into the Canadian economy, the question of working from home, returning to the office or setting out on a new adventure is becoming harder to answer. Will flexibility lead the way for Canadians?

Kelowna restaurateurs Chef Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao, proprietors of Raudz Regional Table, were the first to sound the warning as COVID-19 hit.

They joined a national call to support servers, chefs and restaurant owners — sharing their story on the One Table website as industry associations worked diligently with governments to resume dine-in service. 

Closing restaurants meant more than 800,000 foodservice workers across the country lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced to zero. 

By May 2020, restrictions began to lift as several dining rooms and patios re-opened across Canada. Still, the unemployment rate had rocketed up to 13.7 percent, the highest rate recorded since comparable data became available in 1976. 

“We’re basically operating at half capacity to maintain physical distancing under the province’s COVID protocols,” says Butters. 

“We’re not making a profit.” 

A Restaurants Canada survey (June 2020) showed more than half of operators were operating at a loss. 

The Raudz team pivoted, adding extra capacity on patios in the summer and specials like their canapé and three-course dine-at-home menu for New Year’s Eve. 

Just over a year from the pandemic first closures, the team celebrated a milestone anniversary, a quieter celebration than they had undoubtedly envisioned. 

Last June marked 20 years since Chef Butters and Surrao opened Fresco Restaurant in downtown Kelowna. Over the years, Fresco morphed into Raudz Regional Table, and expansion brought the openings of Micro Bar & Bites, Sunny’s Diner and The Okanagan Table, an event and catering space. 

Theirs is among a small number of stories of resilience. Restaurants Canada estimate 10,000 establishments have permanently closed. 

While total employment in Canada returned to pre-pandemic levels in September 2021, restaurants still haven’t fully recovered. The foodservice sector is 319,000 jobs short of where it was in pre-pandemic, and restaurants face tremendous hiring hurdles. 

Even before the pandemic, Stats Canada research highlighted how hospitality workers have the worst job quality out of any industry. 

“Through our research and via conversations with many restaurant employees across the country, we’ve learned that many are fleeing the industry because the work is a grind,” says Bruce McAdams, associate professor in Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph. 

“The pandemic allowed workers time to find jobs in other industries that provide more stability, regular schedules, vacation time, higher pay and benefits. 

“These workers often felt neglected, and that their employers did not believe they were worth investing in.”

Recruitment woes 

Like hospitality, the aviation sector saw staggering numbers of workers laid off. The Kelowna-based Strategic Aviation, which offers customer service, ground support and catering services to top airlines, saw a workforce of 2,000 shrink to 150 employees. 

“It was a year of quietness, but now they have big-time recruitment issues as West Jet, Air Canada and the entire sector try to rebuild,” says Stacey Bengert of Kelowna’s Aspire Recruitment Solutions. 

As labour shortages have intensified, the need to attract and retain workers has put pressure on wages. 

‘Now Hiring’ marques can be seen at intersections along Highway 97, from West Kelowna to Lake Country. The signs are tucked under the big yellow arches as McDonald’s tries to lure in workers at a record-high $17.50 per hour starting wage. 

The Business Outlook Survey released from the Bank of Canada in January 2022 shows that most businesses across sectors and regions plan to raise wages to compete for workers and retain staff.  

In their survey on labour shortage, BDC found that a desire for higher wages is by far the main reason explaining why workers want to change jobs, followed by a desire for more benefits.

While both are  needed, Bengert reminds employers not to overlook other attractive offerings. 

“Even those little things matter, like free parking, especially in the downtown area,” she says. 

“One of my clients gives their employees their birthday as a paid day off, no matter what day of the week it is.” 

For Pierre Cléroux, chief economist with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), the scarcity of workers is reaching worrying heights. 

“Labour shortage is not a new phenomenon in Canada, yet the pressure has intensified in recent years,” he says. “More than half (55%) of Canadian entrepreneurs are struggling to hire the workers they need, leaving them with no choice but to work more hours, as well as delay or refuse new orders.” 

Cléroux also thinks the labour scarcity is here to stay. “The growth of Canada’s labour force will continue to slow for years as the country’s population ages. Entrepreneurs will have to spend more time hiring workers than they did before.” 

Retirements are expected to remain high until at least 2026, while young people are taking much longer to complete their education and begin their careers.

Looking for a change 

As businesses look to bring back their employees, few are answering the call. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was, ‘OK, shut down. You’re unemployed, that’s it,” says Bengert. “And then it was, ‘OK, well, we’ll take you back part time’ and then, ‘Oh, we’re shut down again.’ It was so back and forth that a lot of people just thought, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with this anymore, so I’m going to go into a different direction.’” 

As a recruiter, Stacey has helped employees transition. 

“I have talked to a lot of candidates who were in hospitality and now they want to get into office work,” she says. “A transition for them would be doing some temporary work, some reception or customer service to gain a bit more experience in that area, and then hopefully full-time permanent opportunities will come from that.” 

The likelihood that workers will switch jobs has reached a record-high level across the nation, according to the latest Canadian Survey of Consumer Expectations by the Bank of Canada. In B.C., 21 percent of those surveyed say they will likely leave their job voluntarily in the next 12 months. 

Not quite the ‘great resignation’ reported south of the border where four million Americans are quitting their jobs each month, but still significant. Internationally, a staggering 40 percent of the global workforce are considering leaving their employer, according to a 2021 Microsoft study. 

Google trends echo that reality. Last year, the world searched ‘how to start a business’ more than ‘how to get a job.’ 

“People are questioning who they are and what matters to them and, in many cases, they’re finding new confidence to show up as themselves and live their true lives,” writes the authors of the latest Fjord Trends report from Accenture. 

To witness this trend, one only has to look at the teepee in Shelley Buchanan’s backyard. 

Past executive and consultant in the non-profit sector, Buchanan exchanged her Kelowna office for the pastoral setting of Wildwood Acres Okanagan. She’s launched a unique tourist accommodation, coupled with wellness products harvested and foraged from her new property high up on Silver Star Mountain. 

“I needed to create some balance in life,” she says. 

“After working to advance the vision of other organizations as an executive, the decision to take the risk and give dedicated energy to my dreams was a scary step. But when your passion starts to shout at you, you have to listen.” 

When the pandemic closed the doors to fitness studios, Daphne Scromeda and Stacy Allen lost their jobs teaching spin at Pure Gym and Juice in Penticton. Daphne had also just started her own marketing firm.  

The two quickly changed gears. 

“Literally, the month after I started this new business, the pandemic hit,” says Scromeda. “My husband was working full time, and somebody had to be home with our kids. So I had to stop that business right away. 

“So, I was at home with two children for three months. There was some reflection and a lot of wine drinking,” she laughs. 

Then came Stacy’s pitch: launch JoiRyde, a female-founded, female-operated wine label at Oliver’s new District Wine Village. 

“I have a background in wine and worked with Poplar Grove Vineyards for over a decade, and Stacy has been working in hospitality,” says Scromeda. “She knew the customer service side, so we were kind of a match made in heaven. So we decided to take the leap.”

Hybrid work 

For others, the desire to keep working from home is strong.

“It’s interesting now that offices are opening up again and staff are requested to come back, they’re saying, ‘No, I don’t want to work from the office anymore’ or ‘I want a flexible schedule where I can work from the office a couple of days a week and then at home,” says Bengert. 

“Employers are in a situation where they have to accommodate, or they’re going to run the risk of losing people. So it’s a really interesting time.” 

Jan Enns, an organizational communications consultant based in Kelowna, urges employers to pay attention; it’s not business as usual. 

“Some employees may want to be in the office. Some may want to continue to be 100 percent remote, and some may want this new hybrid model.” 

Carlton University researchers found employee preferences fall on a continuum. On the one end are employees (23 percent) who want to return to full-time work at the office, and on the other end are those (28 percent) who want to work remotely on a full-time basis. Nearly half have a foot in both camps, wanting to spend half of their time working at home and the other half at the office. 

“Working from home allowed a certain higher level of flexibility for families and individuals,” says Enns. “This is not to say it’s the way to go for everybody. Certainly, if you have little ones at home and you’re trying to work off the dining room table, that’s not an easy task.” 

Comfort and control 

While working from home may have had its stressors; it also had its comforts: that preferred blend brewing in the coffee pot, a warm blanket and comfy couch from which to check the laptop, and all the touches of home. 

At home, one was free to choose: sit on the sofa, work from that spare-bedroom-turned-office or venture outside on the deck. 

In the latest Future of Work global study, Steelcase, a leader in workplace architecture, furniture and technology, reports employees have new and increased expectations of their employers and workplaces—desiring a dramatically different and better experience than the one they left. 

People want the same level of control over their work lives that they have at home. 

Jan agrees, “People may enjoy their work, but they don’t want to go back to Monday to Friday, nine to five with 15-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. They’ve had a taste of this ability to work remotely and get the work done. We see a trend towards more outcome-based work as opposed to watching the clock-based work. 

“We’ve moved away from that old school model that says, ‘If I can’t see you, you’re not working.’ Instead, we’ve seen work continue to get done, and we’ve seen growth in the trust between employee and employer.”  

She sees an opportunity to build on the trust created over COVID.  

“I think a lot of times, organizations set policies without engaging employees. I believe employees feel empowered and more trusted when we do ask them for their input and can come up with some cool solutions to move things forward.”  

In this changing time, it’s critical to communicate. 

“Be constantly saying, ‘Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what we know today. Here’s what we think tomorrow will look like. Here’s how we might move forward.’” 

In larger workplaces, Enns recommends doing short pulse surveys. Leaders also need to set the tone from the top and make engagement inclusive. 

“Talk to your employees and encourage their input in developing that workplace strategy,” she says. 

“What is this new normal going to look like for us moving forward?” 

However, she underscores the need for leaders to be clear on expectations. 

“There’s nothing worse than saying, ‘Yep, we hear you,’ and then doing something completely different.” 

Early in the pandemic, many leaders did not see a need to change their policies, reports Steelcase. But, by September 2020, 87 percent of leaders worldwide responded that they would allow more flexibility about where, when and how people work.

Building a better office

The need for flexibility goes beyond offering work from home days; it extends right down to the walls.

The ability to move desks, technology, or boundaries can help give people the privacy they crave.

Steelcase reports that more than half of workers want to reconfigure their furniture. Yet, that same study had only 38 percent of respondents saying that they could.

In Canada, the top three reasons for wanting to return to the workplace were to reconnect with colleagues, collaborate in person and work in a quiet, professional environment. 

Enns welcomes a hybrid model that offers in-office space for collaborative work while allowing time in a home office for more concentrated or focused work. 

According to Steelcase researchers, this ebb and flow between ‘me’ and ‘we’ work mean the workplace has to provide spaces for both. 

Furnishings that easily move, such as mobile whiteboards, digital displays, privacy screens, and tables or desks on casters, will allow spaces to expand and contract to accommodate individuals and groups of all sizes.  

“When you’re all in the office, some of the spaces are more collegial or collaborative. So there might be tables and more places where you might come together and have a conversation,” says Enns.  

“It’s cool how these trends are manifesting themselves and being supported by how we design the physical space to support how we come back.”