Employers still reluctant to formalize hybrid and remote work language in offer letters

 Veteran headhunter Elan Van Wyck has been coaxing employers to include one key term in offer letters to potential hires recently: language around remote or hybrid work.

Mr. Van Wyck, the co-owner of Winchesters, a Toronto-based boutique recruitment firm, says that over the past six months or so, this has become one of the biggest sticking points for candidates looking for white-collar jobs. They simply do not want to go back into the office full-time, and they want that stated in writing.

“These are people who have gotten used to the flexibility and are saying that in any new job they take on, they want to make sure that they are going to be able to work just two or three days in the office … forever,” he told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.

HSBC’s new offices in Toronto and Vancouver have been completely redesigned with hybrid work in mind.CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

But employers, according to Mr. Van Wyck and multiple lawyers and recruiters The Globe spoke to, still appear reluctant to formalize such arrangements in employment contracts, despite having company policies that allow for a voluntary return to the office or a permanent hybrid work setup.

“Larger, more established employers are definitely very hesitant about putting it into a contract. They might realize later on that they need that person in the office five days a week, and then you would have to change the terms of the employment contract pretty significantly,” said Neena Gupta, a partner at Gowlings WLG specializing in labor and employment law.

For most white-collar employers, the typical company policy around working from home over the past two years has always been subject to change, depending on the severity of COVID-19 infections in a particular jurisdiction. Some companies, largely American banks such as JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley, have publicly asked their employees to return to the office, with few exceptions.

But there is a growing body of evidence that most workers have gotten used to doing their jobs from the comfort of their own homes, and aren’t prepared to give that up.

An Angus Reid survey conducted in March showed that more than half of Canadians currently working from home would look for a new job if they were asked to return to the office, while 23 percent said they would quit on the spot. Equally notable is that four out of five of the 2,550 working adults surveyed in the poll said that working from home was “good” or “great” and that it had not affected their productivity.

An Amazon Canada poll of 1,600 Canadian office workers conducted in February suggested that half of the Canadian workers consider working mostly or entirely remotely their ideal scenario; only a quarter wanted to come back into the office for most of the time.

“The fact that employers have company policies on working from home, but are unwilling to put it into an offer letter, suggests to me that things might change and go back to how they used to be when the pandemic subsides,” Mr. Van Wyck said.

There appears to be a clear disconnect between what employers are offering and what employees want when it comes to returning to the office, says Travis O’Rourke, president of recruitment giant Hays Specialist Recruitment. Based on his own clients, he said there are far more employees asking for remote work or minimal days in the office than employers willing to offer them permanently.

“But it’s an employees’ market right now. I think employers do not want to commit themselves to permanent remote or hybrid work right at this very moment because they might have more leverage over employees later on and they don’t want it to be the case years down the road that you can’t get someone back into the office,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

According to Ms. Gupta, an employer who breaches an employee contract, or tries to amend it in such a way that it results in the employee leaving, would most likely face financial repercussions. “You’ll be paying out a package to an employee that you invested not just money, but time and training in. That’s why there’s some hesitancy, which makes sense.”

HSBC's new offices can accommodate more than 50 per cent of staff.CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

At HSBC Canada, which has a staff base of roughly 5,300 workers across Canada but primarily in Vancouver and Toronto, hybrid work is a permanent company policy. The bank’s employees, according to Kim Toews, executive vice-president and head of human resources, can choose how many days they want to come back into the office and work with their immediate managers on a schedule.

HSBC’s new offices in Toronto and Vancouver have even been completely redesigned with that in mind. There are open-concept desks, private pods, and an array of meeting rooms equipped with video-conferencing technology.

While they don’t want everyone in at once, “we want people to feel that the workplace is actually welcoming,” Ms. Toews explained. The bank’s new offices can accommodate more than 50 percent of the staff. In Vancouver, HSBC has an agreement with co-working space WeWork in the unlikely situation where the office cannot accommodate all the workers present.

Still, it is not a certainty that new hires will see definitive language around work flexibility reflected in their employment contracts. Ms. Toews said that a likely outcome would be an offer letter where the potential employee agrees that their initial period of work will be a remote, hybrid, or whatever their preference is, and that will subsequently be reviewed periodically. “An employee might have lost the confidence of a manager to work remotely,” she said as an example of why privileges could be revoked.

Kelly Blackett, head of human resources at Canadian Western Bank, said the company prioritizes flexible work (hybrid work is the current norm), but the bank does not include language around the policy in employment contracts. “We need to be agile and we don’t know what the future holds,” she said.

Being subject to the whims and demands of an employer is exactly what Nimar Bangash decided he needed to divorce himself from. In March, he quit his job as an investment fund specialist at AGF Investments Inc., a Toronto-based wealth management firm.

“My job became increasingly demanding over the pandemic, and the way we are rewarded is by getting more work,” he said. “AGF has been good in terms of letting us work where we want, but still, you’re shackled to someone else.” Mr. Bangash has plans for starting his own business in the fintech space – designing an investing app – and will focus efforts on raising money for his project in the coming months.

If and when he successfully becomes a business owner, he said his company ethos will be letting employees work where they want, when they want, as long as they deliver the goods. “And yes, I’ll put that in writing,” he said.

HSBC employees can choose how many days they want to come back into the office and work with their immediate managers on a schedule.CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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