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Prior to the pandemic, most Canadians looked at jobs in their immediate area and committed to paying whatever the transportation costs would be, says Malini Vijaykumar, an employment lawyer at Ottawa-based Nelligan Law.
“We're seeing employees go, ‘Well, hold on a second, I don't have to live in Toronto to have a job in Toronto at a Toronto salary. And if I'm living somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper, then I can actually take a lot more of that [salary] home and keep it in my pocket.’”
Chhinzer adds that women have been more resistant to return to in-person work due to pressures outside the workplace, such as child care.
“We also notice the same with other equity-seeking groups … immigrants and older workers.”
There’s contention around whether or not in-person work is beneficial to employers and employees. A study from Statistics Canada last year found 90% of teleworkers felt at least as productive at home as in-office.
However, Chhinzer says “proximity bias” is a real thing — people who go into the office may be recommended more for training and development opportunities or a career promotion.
“You have to overcome [this] with better solutions, such as regular lunch-and-learns or informal conversations with coworkers to ensure you're still part of that fabric of the workplace.”
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How to negotiate
While the labour crunch is being felt across sectors, you might be in a better position to haggle if you work in an industry with especially high demand and growth, such as health care and technology.
“I think the best thing we could do here is be honest and transparent about what our motivation is,” says Chhinzer.
Whether you’re requesting a different working arrangement or a higher salary, do your research and arrive prepared.
Vijaykumar suggests looking at other salary offerings in the market, as well as what your company typically pays out. If you work remotely, you can mention the overhead savings from things like office space and parking.
“You can … bring [that] up in a conversation and say, ‘Can we translate this into a higher salary or [better] benefits?’”
Chhinzer says that if your company is unable to offer you a raise, it might be able to present you with a short-term or one-time perk instead, like a cash retention bonus. Other benefits you might ask for as a compromise include subsidized gym costs, fitness centres and child care.
Vijayakumar notes that employees should also educate themselves about their legal rights when seeking accommodation.
In her province, the Ontario Human Rights Code protects employees even through the interview and job application process. For example, if you request a different time for an interview or test due to caregiving responsibilities, this can’t be held against you as a candidate.
And she adds that it’s important to put everything you negotiate in writing. If you're having a verbal conversation with HR or a supervisor, send an email afterward to recap what was discussed.
“If it's a medical accommodation, be prepared that you may be asked for a doctor's note … And if in doubt, always talk to a lawyer.”
Employers need to support their employees
Chhinzer says a lot of solutions around retention don’t necessarily need to cost employers money.
“We have to stop and say thank you to our employees … We have to bring them back and be cheerleaders for them and build environments in which they can recreate their passion for work,” she says.
She recommends training managers on compassionate leadership and also investing in employees to enhance their existing skill set with micro-credentials and certificate programs.
Reskilling — that is, equipping employees with skills that are unnecessary for their current role but may help them in other positions within the company — is also crucial. World Economic Forum, an international non-profit for public-private cooperation, reports that half of all employees around the world will require reskilling by 2025.
“When unemployment levels are so low, or when it's so hard to find talent, employers have to invest in their own people with a longer-term trajectory, so that these people will then reciprocate that and stay with the organization with their newly developed skills,” Chhinzer says.
Vijaykumar says the No. 1 lesson is to listen to your employees. “There are a lot of companies who have adopted just a rigid one-size-fits-all approach to transitioning out of the pandemic.”
She argues that employers must consider individual employee needs. For example, a company might mandate a return to in-person work three days a week with one month’s notice. However, it may not have accounted for employees with child care or other family obligations.
“The employers who embrace the flexibility … [and] see it as an opportunity to develop their business in line with the new reality of the world … those are the employers that I think are going to see more success and less legal risk going forward,” says Vijakumar.
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