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COVID is changing the nature of work

The economy we are reopening after COVID-19 is vastly different from the one we shut down to stop the spread. Physical distancing has been a months-long natural experiment for business.
Gavin Dew | Submitted

The economy we are reopening after COVID-19 is vastly different from the one we shut down to stop the spread. 

Physical distancing has been a months-long natural experiment for business. It has been a shock to the system, accelerating disruption and setting the stage to recast the nature of work. 

At the outset, ongoing safety concerns will shape the new normal. But to navigate long-term recovery successfully, we must transition from propping businesses up to kickstarting the economy, individual businesses must adapt in their own ways and government must help with policy changes that are both practical and politically viable.  

Just as COVID-19 response measures started, the Forum for Millennial Leadership commissioned a national opinion research study by Research Co, looking for common sense ideas Canadians could agree on to make life better for young people, especially families. 

Things are really bad now, but that doesn’t mean they were great in March. At that time, 72% of Canadians agreed that “government needs to stop chasing away investment and family-supporting jobs.” 68% of 18-34-year-olds said today’s affordability challenges are preventing people like them from having families. That was before millions of jobs were lost, half of them people under 30. 

Jobs will come back, but not all of them, and not without help. 

As economic activity receded, the low tide gave Canadians everyday visibility into how our economy fits together. If ever there was a time to have difficult conversations and set new expectations around how business, government, and communities work together to create conditions for investment and private sector job creation, it is while those memories are fresh. 

On balance, government’s COVID-19 response measures were an expensive but necessary way to keep the economy afloat in the short term. We have seen how quickly governments and businesses can move in a crisis. As we rebuild the economy, we should move quickly, cost-effectively, and compassionately to make Canada a better place for working families.

Canadians believe in a robust social safety net, but they want to make their own livings and their own choices. 68% of Canadians and 75% of parents with children under 18 say “young families need more housing, more jobs and less taxes – not more government programs.” 72% of Canadians and 77% of parents say “we should reduce personal taxes so parents can make their own choices.” 

What are some smart, low-cost, broadly supported ideas that can make a difference? 

In British Columbians, 71% of people agree that the affordability crisis is splitting up extended family support networks as young people move to find housing and jobs. Both employers and employees would benefit from adapting to this reality; 77% of Canadians think we should encourage flexible and remote working arrangements for working parents. More than 70% support both tax measures to help parents working part time from home, and incentives for businesses to improve conditions for young parents.

It’s not just about more taxes or less. Our tax system needs a comprehensive modernization; 66% of Canadians and 73% of 18-34-year-olds support adapting the tax system to better suit the realities that today’s young people face, like the gig economy. 75% think we should support the increasingly common practice of young parents starting part-time businesses while raising children. 76% of Canadians say we should make sure childcare tax credits work for people in all different forms of employment. 70% of Canadians say we should introduce an equivalent to parental leave for self-employed parents.  

As we take on these new challenges, perennial challenges still need work: 70% of Canadians and 77% of women believe that women still face too many career barriers and difficult trade-offs if they decide to have children, and 80% think we need to close the gender pay gap. 

As storefront businesses struggle and companies make tough decisions about office spaces in the work from home era, demand for retail and office real estate has softened. Simultaneously, there is a persistent undersupply of childcare in metropolitan Canada. More than 75% of Canadians support increasing the availability of before-and-after school care, increasing the availability of childcare in central business districts, increasing the availability of onsite childcare at workplaces, opening childcare facilities in underused office spaces, and finding new ways to provide outdoor play spaces for childcare facilities - which would make it easier to locate them closer to where people work. Now is an opportune time to modernize childcare, make it better suited to people’s needs, and help fill vacant spaces with viable businesses for which there is pent up demand.

Adapting businesses to the new normal is not just about a new relationship with employees – it’s also about new relationships with customers. Ongoing physical distancing measures will continue to be the focus for a time, and storefront businesses will continue to struggle. Simple, inexpensive tweaks can make a big difference. For example, 77% of Canadians want to encourage privately-owned businesses like restaurants, movie theatres, and shopping malls to install baby changing tables in their bathrooms. 75% think we should make nursing rooms available in places like shopping malls. With 66% of Canadians saying they choose to support businesses that make an effort to be family friendly, making sure families feel welcome makes commercial sense.

As businesses move from resiliency to recovery, the most adaptable will survive and thrive. Supporting young families and adapting to their realities is a wise strategy. 

Gavin Dew is a Vancouver entrepreneur, father, and founder of the Forum for Millennial Leadership, a cross-partisan group working to engage and elect more young Canadians.