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Canada's tech industry experiencing shift away from remote work

When Heather Aleinik was laid off from Shopify Inc. last summer, it was "one of the biggest curveballs" of her career.
When Heather Aleinik was laid off from Shopify Inc. last summer, it was "one of the biggest curveballs" of her career. Aleinik works remotely from her home office in Calgary, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

When Heather Aleinik was laid off from Shopify Inc. last summer, it was "one of the biggest curveballs" of her career.

The now 29-year-old Calgary woman had discovered remote work was conducive to her neurodivergence and love of travel while at the Ottawa-based e-commerce company, which launched a remote work policy at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — a policy it claimed would be permanent. 

Aleinik eventually found a new job at a software firm advertising a "five-year remote commitment," but just as she started to get comfortable, the company built a new office in Florida and its CEO started extolling the benefits of working on-site. She quit just before employees living near the office were ordered back three days a week.

"The idea of going back is terrifying. The idea of being on a bus, being in public transit and for all of it to be made mandatory and we don't have a choice, that's one of the biggest reasons why I'm fighting to stay remote," Aleinik said.

"People get healthier when they're at home. They have better relationships with their family, they can manage childcare."

Aleinik's experience is a sign of a shiftrippling through the tech sector as employers move away from entirely remote roles and toward hybrid and in-person work arrangements.

While companies in other industries are also increasingly mandating workers back to the office at least a few days every week, the tech sector's shift is notable — and even shocking to some — because the industry was an early champion of remote work.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke declared “office centricity is over” and said he'd let most of his workforce remain at home on a permanent basis.

Mark Zuckerberg even hypothesized Meta, then called Facebook, could have half its staff working remotely within five or 10 years.

Wary of being unable to compete with big tech names and not wanting to disrupt workers who had grown accustomed to logging on from their kitchen table or wherever their travels took them, startups seemed poised to let staff work remotely forever, too.

Those arrangements are scarcer these days.

A recent report from jobs site Indeed found that out of the number of Canadians who had some form of hybrid work arrangement, just shy of 60 per cent were fully remote, down from 75 per cent a year earlier.  

"We are seeing the majority of roles that we have posted right now are hybrid and have a city attached to them," said April Hicke, co-founder of Toast, a women's collective and talent organization that shares tech-focused job postings with its members.

The recent move away from purely remote jobs was "very, very quick and very dramatic," Hicke added, attributing much of the change to a ripple effect that began with big tech.

Video-conferencing pioneer Zoom asked employees who live within 80 kilometres of its offices to be on site two days a week in August.

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg prodded staff toward Meta's offices in March, even as he announced 10,000 workers were being laid off and another 5,000 job postings were being cancelled as part of his "year of efficiency."

"This requires further study, but our hypothesis is that it is still easier to build trust in person and that those relationships help us work more effectively," he wrote in an open letter.

Data captured by Meta showed engineers who either joined the company in-person and then transferred to remote or remained in-person performed better on average than people who joined remotely. Engineers earlier in their career perform better on average when they work in-person with teammates at least three days a week, the company also concluded.

Other firms have touted office and hybrid work as builders of camaraderie and made it clear that career advancement at their companies depend on in-person interactions.

IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna, for example, told Bloomberg in May he’s not forcing workers back to the office yet but said those who stick to remote work would find it difficult to get promoted, especially into managerial roles.

Amazon's Andy Jassy appears to agree. The chief executive reportedly told staff in late August “it’s probably not going to work out” for those who won't return to an office.

But getting workers back to the office should be about collaboration rather than career advancement, said Marta Max. The executive operations manager at Nanoleaf, a Toronto-based smart home technology company, tells staff that facetime does not equal more or fewer promotions.

Nanoleaf asks engineering product staff to be in on Mondays and Thursdays, while sales and marketing workers visit the office on Wednesdays.

"We got to the point where we actually figured let's make some days mandatory ... because they need that interaction, that sort of hands-on approach when they're solving complex problems with hardware and software," Max said.

"It's sometimes hard to do online and when you solve it, there's nobody around you to cheer with."

Despite asking staff on some teams to be in on specific days, Nanoleaf offers leeway for staff who moved out of the Greater Toronto Area or have scheduling conflicts.

Max says most of her friends in the industry, however, have been mandated back to offices. When she asks why, they tell her they think their company's chief executive hates working from home, wants to justify the expense of office space or just doesn't trust staff.

Pushing back on such stances is proving tougher because of increasing tech layoffs.

Companies like Shopify, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft have culled massive numbers of staff from their workforce. Layoffs aggregator counted 231,695 workers across 968 tech companies globally who have lost their jobs this year alone.

"It's definitely more of an employer's market right now, so you may have to be more flexible in terms of salary, job title or where you want to work," Hicke said.

Yet Aleinik had luck finding a remote job, which she started in August. She's confident this employer won't force her back because her contract listed the role as 100 per cent remote and said if there was a move back to the office, it would be optional.

"Those were major green flags, but I would still say actions speak louder than words," she said.

"So if they buy offices and other buildings, ... if they say coming into the office is the best way to get to know your company, those are red flags that I missed before that I definitely don't see here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press