Employees Who Moved During the Pandemic Face Tough Choices As Their Offices Reopen

Many Canadians saw an opportunity to move cities—or even across the country—while WFH was the norm. But now more bosses are expecting to see staff in person

Like other Canadian federal public servants, 34-year-old Marie Corbeil left her physical office and headed home on March 13, 2020, unaware of when she would return due to the pandemic. A year later, in March 2021, nearly five million Canadians were still working from home. But now that Corbeil’s work is requiring staff to be in the office at least two days a week, things are getting tricky for her: She had to tell her boss that her commute now involves an airplane.

“In the beginning, I worked for months sitting at my small, round dining table or couch in my one-bedroom apartment,” the policy analyst says. “My family was living far away, my 90-year-old grandmother was living alone, and my claustrophobia intensified. I saw teleworking as an opportunity to move back home and have a better lifestyle.” 

So, in January 2021, Corbeil moved from her tiny Ottawa apartment and rented a two-bedroom spot near her grandmother in Moncton, New Brunswick. Initially, her boss was displeased that Corbeil moved cities without telling them first, but understood her circumstances and is accommodating for now. Still, they expect her in the office two days a month. “I didn’t really think about the future when I moved,” Corbeil says. “I was just worried about being close to my family in case of an emergency.”

Corbeil is not alone in her decision to move during the pandemic, a choice that is now posing professional problems for many workers. Data shows that Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver experienced a record loss of residents from July 2019 to July 2020 as COVID-19 accelerated the urban-to-suburban trend. While high real estate prices have been pushing people out of major cities for more affordable locations for a while, companies’ pandemic work-from-home policies made moving more attractive—especially for younger Canadians. After all, why work from a tiny condo when you can video call in from a beach? But now, employers are calling staff back to the office thanks to vaccines, and reinstating in-person work or implementing hybrid models. Those who made a move are faced with tough decisions if they want to keep their jobs.   

“I didn’t really think about the future when I moved”

The clock is ticking for many of these employees as more workplaces announce their 2022 reopening plans. Toronto Mayor John Tory announced he will reopen public buildings in January at maximum capacity in keeping with public health rules, and expects that most city staff will work three days a week in the office. Canadian banks and insurance companies have also begun bringing employees back to the office, with hybrid work arrangements to start in early 2022. 

This trend is not good news for Alex Giordano. The 25-year-old communications associate used the pandemic’s remote work opportunities to his advantage. As most office jobs asked employees to stay home throughout 2020 and much of 2021, Giordano broadened his search and applied for roles outside of where he lived after being one of the many Canadians who lost their job at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I accepted a role at a non-profit in May of this year in Edmonton while living in Calgary,” Giordano says. “I was more concerned with securing a job than what the future would mean when it came to returning to the office.” While he’s made the commute to his office a few times for events, he remains largely at home—a situation his boss is not entirely satisfied with; he has requested that Giordano work out of the physical office at least one or two weeks every month. 

Giordano explained to his boss that this is not sustainable, nor necessary, as he says he can efficiently work from home. Even with his company covering some of his travel expenses, Giordano foresees it becoming a dividing point in his employment. He is actively trying to secure a new job before his boss gives him an ultimatum. 

The debate over whether or not people really need to be in an office to work is ongoing: Some argue the office model is outdated, and the pandemic has proved remote work is possible and profitable. Others say sharing a workspace improves company culture and collaboration. Sean Huynh, CEO of Toronto-based recruiting firm DevTalent, says remote work and hybrid approaches are important tools to attract and retain top talent in competitive industries, like tech. In-person requirements are crucial for various jobs, including those in hospitality and collaborative fields, but not necessary for all sectors. Many top companies have already successfully implemented a permanent remote or hybrid work model, including Facebook and Twitter

Because Canada is now experiencing a job-seekers market, with many industries struggling to hire, remote work policies are increasingly becoming not just a perk, but a must-have for searchers. People have become acutely aware of the importance of work-life balance, and the lifestyle flexibility that comes with working from home. Huynh says he’s seeing more companies put a greater emphasis on accommodating for remote work when recruiting staff. “One of our clients is open to hiring anywhere in Canada, but requires remote employees to travel to the office once a quarter for team meetings,” Huynh says. “Others are requiring one to three days in the office per week to create the buzz and energy of having everyone work together.”

It can be challenging for employees who moved during the pandemic to navigate a permanent remote situation if their workplace has less defined or evolving plans. Huynh says fostering trust with your manager is important to sustain long-term arrangements, which can be achieved through open communication. While it can be harder to keep tabs on employees when they’re out of the office, he says, as long as there’s transparency about where you are, what you are doing and why you prefer to work remotely, an agreement can often be met. 

Corbeil admits she was extremely nervous to tell her manager she had moved away from Ottawa, but wishes she did it sooner. “I didn’t expect her to be so understanding,” she says. “The longer you wait only makes it more difficult—regardless of how a boss feels about remote working.”