Flexibility will be key to the future of work, ICTC report finds

Sebastian Leck
August 4, 2021

The future of work will be flexible, but what that means will differ greatly between precarious gig workers and better-paid employees who work remotely by choice, a new report from the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) has found.

"The pandemic has irreversibly impacted the future of work," wrote ICTC analysts and researchers Trevor Quan, Khiran O’Neil, Emerick Mary and Sylvie Leblanc in the introduction of the report.

The report had three main findings:

  • Flexible work arrangements will be a key feature of work in the future: Gig and remote workers both value flexibility, and the desire for flexible work is driving "hybrid office" models, the researchers found.
  • Technology is not the only factor driving change: For remote work, technology is the most critical factor, but for gig work, the changing labour market and social policy also play important roles and interact with technological change in complex ways.
  • Precarity and inequality are key challenges: The authors write that the pandemic exacerbated class differences, with highly-paid white-collar employees working remotely while low-paid "essential" workers take on risk outside their homes. They also noted that remote work could worsen the gender pay gap and that the likelihood of working remotely is directly correlated with income.

"Precarity is the undesirable flipside of flexibility," said O'Neil, a senior research & policy analyst at the ICTC, to reporters at a media conference. "A lot of the people who lost work at the beginning of the pandemic were low-paid workers to begin with, and wealth inequality grew during that period."

To produce the report, funded in part by the Government of Canada's Sectoral Initiatives Program, the researchers reviewed existing literature, interviewed 19 subject-matter experts and sent out a survey over 1,500 people. Of the people surveyed, two-thirds were gig or remote workers.

Remote workers want hybrid work despite difficulties with work-life balance

The first section of the report looked at remote workers and their experiences during the pandemic. Remote workers that they surveyed said they could set their working hours, relocate to to areas with a lower cost of living and spend more time with their family. However, the benefits came at a cost of a lack of separation between life and work, fewer social interactions with co-workers and an increased burden to cover remote office expenses.

More than half of the remote workers they surveyed felt they "could never completely sign off for the day" and that they felt isolated, the report found. Feedback on productivity was also mixed: the majority of the workers said they were less productive than before the pandemic, although young workers were more likely to say productivity improved.

Despite those challenges, "nearly three-quarters of respondents in a Future Skills Centre study believed that their employer should continue to allow them to work from home at least several days a week, post-pandemic," the researchers wrote.

Gig workers were a more diverse group

O'Neil and Trevor Quan, who's also a senior research & policy analyst at the ICTC, said that gig workers were the most diverse group they looked at and differed in how they used the income.

Most gig workers work part-time, the researchers found. The researchers found that 89 percent of gig worker respondents work 30 or fewer hours in a week, and 55 percent of respondents work fewer than 10 hours a week. For older workers, gig work was mainly a part-time activity, with 40 percent of those aged 55 and older working five or fewer hours per week in the gig economy.

For about one of every five respondents, their entire income came from the gig economy, O'Neil said.

"Then, 30 percent of respondents said they need gig work to supplement their earnings to pay their bills. In that case, it's clearly acting as a social safety net of some sort," O'Neil said.

During the pandemic, gig workers said they were earning more and were more productive, but that there was not enough time in a day to complete their work due to heightened demand, he said.

Gig workers are also a more ethnically diverse group than remote workers. The researchers found that while nearly four-fifths of non-gig respondents were white, just 59 percent of gig worker respondents were. Data from Lyft also showed that in Canada, 90 percent of the drivers identify as identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.

Government policies have not changed with the times

The researchers also found that there is a "policy vacuum" around gig work, given that platform companies such as Uber rarely share their data with policymakers and researchers. They wrote that social security policies and worker classification rules have not moved fast enough in the U.S. and Canada to match the changing nature of gig work.

"The gig economy is at an inflection point. As such, government policy that helps to shape the gig economy is urgently needed, and attention must be paid to a range of issues including data measurement, taxation, social security, and industry regulation," the researchers wrote.

Some policy suggestions offered by the researchers included:

  • Consulting with gig workers to determine how the classification of these workers might affect them.
  • Make internet access more affordable by building on the roll-out of the Universal Broadband Fund.
  • Ensure that existing employment supports such as employment insurance are accessible to all workers.
  • Establish common definitions and measurements of non-standard work such as gig work.
  • Ensure that tax codes are up to date given the new work trends.
  • On the part of the business and public sectors, they can maintain "clear communication with workers regarding remote work expectations and plans post-pandemic," the researchers wrote.


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