Time theft? These Canadian workers are more concerned with pandemic burnout.

Workers want increased help, not surveillance.

As the country heads into its eighth month of COVID-19 restrictions, Canadians are growing increasingly accustomed to working from home.

With the prospect of remote work continuing to be a reality for many Canadians in the months to come, the question of how to bring a sense of normalcy—and productivity—to the home office is being raised.

On Nov. 17, 2020, the Financial Post published an opinion piece by Ontario-based labour and employment lawyer Howard Levitt. In the piece, Levitt argued that “remote work is quickly leading to both reduced control and productivity.”

As a result, Levitt believes that “time theft”—the act of not actively working during work hours—has quickly become an “insidious trend.”

According to Levitt, going to a public park, sitting on the patio with a drink, or watching Netflix all constitute acts of “time theft” that have become easier to conceal from an employer.

Reception to the column was overwhelmingly negative on social media, with many online users sharing how working from home has led to working longer hours and experiencing more stress.

The Pigeon spoke to Canadians who are working from home about their perception of productivity, timeliness, and wellness.

They say increased mental strain—caused by working remotely during a global pandemic—is their main concern.

In the spring, when countless workplaces shut their doors and moved operations online, Toronto-based journalist Jackson Weaver wasn’t sure what to expect.

As a self-described introvert, Weaver admits the prospect of working from home had its appeal.

“Right out of the gate, I was like, ‘Amazing,’” he told The Pigeon in an interview. “This is what I’d always dreamt of.”

Then, a two-week stay home order turned into months of remote work, and Weaver—who lives alone—began to feel the strain of his isolation.

“I work at home obviously, and I live alone, and I recently moved to Toronto. So, I really don’t know people here,” he explained.

Weaver’s isolation has taken a toll. He said he’s noticed he has to work longer hours and devote more time to his assignments to get the same output he achieved before COVID-19.

“It’s difficult to be motivated in the same sort of way—it can be hard to stay on track,” he said. “I’m producing the same amount of things objectively […] but it takes more time.”

Weaver takes issue with the concept of remote employees abusing their at-home environments.

“[There’s the idea that with less oversight] we’re going to immediately stop working, and we’re going to go sit on the couch for the whole day and not get anything done,” he said. “I don’t think that’s at all what it’s been like. Most people I know are working more, a lot more.”

“The concept that we’re all going to take advantage of working from home is the exact opposite thing that’s going on. I think that’s just a very toxic way of looking at people’s ability to survive during a pandemic.”

While other workplaces were closing, Rhube, an Ottawa-based sex worker who also works as a fertility, birth, and postpartum doula, had already been working independently and remotely for two and a half years.

Still, she told The Pigeon pandemic-imposed isolation has brought a host of new challenges to the existing struggles of working from home.

“I am immunocompromised […] so I immediately stopped doing in-person work pretty early on and decided to shift more into my online work,” Rhube said.

“I fell flat. I don’t know if it was the existential dread and the sense of panic and horror with the pandemic, but I couldn’t bring myself to [work].”

As a sex worker, Rhube’s online presence is already focused on her professional persona. She found it difficult to connect socially with others as a result; for her, logging on often meant working.

“My engagement with social media prior to the pandemic was largely through my work persona,” she explained. “Having that focus on the professional side of my social media presence made it very difficult to be authentic and genuine, and really use [the internet] as an outlet.”

Rhube said she noticed her peers continuing to work uninterrupted but struggled personally to be productive while news of the pandemic continued to worsen.

“That blur between work and life boundaries really affected me, and the pandemic itself just brought up a lot of latent trauma,” she said. “The rest of the world just seemed to go on and expected me to go on as normal [too].”

Christine Korol is a registered psychologist based in Vancouver, B.C. She told The Pigeon that while remote work has its benefits—like reduced commuting time and more flexibility—employers shouldn’t overlook the negative impacts of isolation on employees.

“I think that downsides are really that feeling of isolation, and getting a bit of cabin fever,” she said. “Especially if you’re a bit more extroverted, being stuck at home and not being able to feel connected to your team [can be harmful].”

When it comes to the concept of time theft, Korol emphasized the underlying value of work breaks—not only for mental wellness, but even for overall efficiency.

“Often, when we go for a walk, or when we start procrastinating, it’s because our brain needs a break,” Korol explained. “And we actually do a lot of our good problem solving when we’re taking breaks.”

“If companies were more focused on results, rather than working minute by minute, they would get a lot more great ideas from their employees.”

As pandemic restrictions continue, Korol hopes employers will take an empathetic approach to monitoring their staff’s work output, instead of a punitive one.

“For the most part, people are reporting that the pandemic is having a negative effect on their mental health. That’s going to affect productivity,” she said. “Before you assume somebody’s stealing time, check in and find out what’s going on […] make sure that they’re okay.”

Whether or not “time theft” is a growing problem in Canadian workplaces, solutions to negligent employees have cropped up globally, mainly through software-based monitoring systems.

“The easiest way to identify time thieves is through the use of technology,” Levitt wrote in his piece. “Many digital collaborative tools will indicate whether someone is in a meeting, at their computer or, if away from their computer, how long they have been away.”

Almost immediately after workplaces transitioned to remote operations, employers began to explore how they could continue to closely monitor their staff. A report from Vox published in April found that remote monitoring software sales have skyrocketed globally since March, with an increasing number of Canadian businesses among those exploring surveillance software options.

Korol thinks this attitude towards remote work will only further alienate employees.

“It’s not good to be micromanaged and not have your employer trust you,” she said. “To micromanage your staff and to assume that they’re stealing time from you […] will set you up for a lot of employee dissatisfaction and disengagement.”

Giulio Cescato, a manager in Toronto, Ont. told The Pigeon that giving his team members independence during the work day is a no-brainer.

“Allowing staff to have flexibility in their hours is an important part of coping with the [pandemic],” he said. “It’s more of a question of whether they’re producing, not whether or not they happen to [sit] in a chair for X amount of minutes.”

Cescato added that his employees’ mental wellness has taken precedence over their productivity.

“[When the pandemic started,] I was worried about stress. I was worried about layoffs. I was worried about staff being redeployed to other units,” he recalled. “My primary concerns were my staff’s health and wellbeing.”

Cescato said he isn’t worried about employees not doing enough work. In fact, looking forward to the upcoming months of continued remote work, he sees himself having to encourage his staff to take more breaks instead.

“It’s really going to be incumbent upon organizations and managers to find ways to even sometimes forcibly unplug their staff and get them to take breaks and vacation.”

Neha Chugh, a lawyer who owns a firm in Cornwall, Ont., told The Pigeon that her staff’s mental wellbeing has a major impact on the clients they represent.

“Our clients are not going to be well served by employees who are scared, upset, being surveilled, panicked, [or] stressed about things that are happening in the external world,” she said. “Our clients are vulnerable and in need of high-quality service, and that’s not going to be served if a lawyer is compromised in any way.”

Because Chugh’s employees are mostly lawyers like herself, she says her team has benefited from building mutual trust—a trust they’ve carried forward into the pandemic.

“We all run our own files [and] we all have our own clients, but we also work in a really strong team environment,” she explained. “I’m so lucky to work in a team where I can say, ‘I’ve got to care for my kids for the next month or two. Can someone else step in?’ And without hesitation, someone steps in.”

As an employer, Chugh added it’s better for her own mental health to trust and support her team, too.

“It would be exhausting for me to police my employees,” she said.

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