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Whats remote work got to do with it?

The largest remote workforce in Canada has a new employment deal. What does it mean for the future of WFH?

LAST WEEK, A tentative deal was struck between the Public Service Alliance of Canada and their employer, the federal government, bringing to a close a 12-day strike.


At issue in the labour dispute was not only wages, but the future the largest remote workplace in Canada: would the government be able to force workers back to the office two or three days per week, or would federal civil servants continue to work from home indefinitely?


The deal struck around remote work was a compromise for both parties: the Treasury Board stepped back from its one-size-fits-all mandate that all workers be back in the office part-time, while the union stepped back from its desire to see remote work enshrined in the contract. What the two sides settled on was something more flexible.


“The two sides drafted an agreement that remote requests will be assessed individually by managers, in writing,” writes public service expert Katherine May. “Requests that are denied will go to a joint union-employer panel for review, but they cannot be grieved.”


Both parties seem to have come away from the bargaining table relatively content with what they landed on, at least officially (the deal itself will need to be ratified by the membership and may encounter hurdles there).

The union claimed the agreement would give members access to more protections and the right to hammer out a work-from-home arrangement with their manager. Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, said the agreement supports “fairness, equity and modernization,” and will “encourage the union and manager to discuss individual issues that could touch culture or management issues.”


So, if you were hoping for a decisive answer to remote work going forward, you might be disappointed; the deal was more of a baby-steps-forward than a great leap, suggesting that we’re still a long way from a standard hybrid workplace model throughout the whole economy.


But some observers of this deal suggest that it inches everyone a little bit closer to a new normal. “The tentative agreement reached with the largest group of strikers contains important steps toward an ongoing work-from-home protocol,” write Graham Lowe, Karen Hughes and Jim Stanford of the Future of Work Institute.

“The strike will be a defining moment in the evolution of work-from-home practices,” they continued. “The tentative deal, by codifying specific practices in a labour contract, confirms that work-from-home arrangements will be an essential ingredient in workplace relations well into the future.” Kieran Delamont


What the mouse might know

New tech promises to tackle workplace stress by picking up on digital traces of behaviour. Is this a good thing?

AS WE’VE MENTIONED in this newsletter before, workplace stress levels are at near all-time highs. According to stress statistics from project management platform Wrike, 94 per cent of American workers experience workplace stress, and there’s little to suggest that Canada is in a different boat.


For workplaces, an overabundance of stress is bad for morale and the bottom line ― and many are starting to take more steps to identify and address it. One way that’s being done is automatic stress detection systems that rely on artificial intelligence to sense when an employee is on the brink, so to speak.


Last month, Swiss researchers published a study looking at how automated stress detection systems could work. "People who are stressed move the mouse pointer more often and less precisely and cover longer distances on the screen. Relaxed people, on the other hand, take shorter, more direct routes to reach their destination and take more time doing so,” study author and mathematician at ETH Zurich Mara Nägelin said.


One approach for deploying this in the workplace relies on chatbots. “A popular example, Woebot, uses natural language processing and sentiment analysis to interpret a user’s input and generate personalized responses,” said Corporate Wellness Magazine.


Could this be coming to your workplace soon? Hard to say. Workplace stress is notoriously hard to identify for managers, so the introduction of automated systems could be a real improvement ― if it’s implemented properly, of course.


“The technology of automated stress detection is intended to help individuals privately manage their own wellbeing, but it is not hard to imagine unintended consequences. Stress-tracking can theoretically allow employers to pick out those who flourish under pressure ― and those who struggle,” writes FT science contributor Ananja Ahuja. “Won’t companies want to identify who is coping well in the office ― and who isn’t?”


The Swiss research team agreed ― they backed their technologies but stressed that it was a way for workers to identify their own stress, not to report them to their bosses.


“The only way people will accept and use our technology is if we can guarantee that we will anonymize and protect their data,” said fellow ETH Zurich researcher and psychologist Jasmine Kerr. “We want to help workers to identify stress early, not create a monitoring tool for companies.” Kieran Delamont

Terry Talks: The cost of a bad hire and how to avoid it

In today’s incredibly tight labour market, finding qualified candidates for open positions is one of the most important aspects of any successful organization. But hiring the wrong person can cost a company both time and money, not to mention the potential negative impact to a company’s morale and productivity. By implementing key hiring practices ahead of time, bad hires can all but be avoided. 



What goes around, comes around

Why are flip phones coming back? Gen Z is powering a renaissance for the forgotten device

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MORE THAN ANYTHING, what kicked off the current era of thinking about work-life balance and disconnecting is likely the smartphone. Before you could be reached at virtually all hours of the day, disconnecting from a job was easy ― you just left, more or less. Smartphone era? Good luck.


Among those quiet-quitting Gen Zers, a recent trend is trying to reverse course: the re-adoption of the flip phone and other non-smart “dumb phones.”


“​​These devices are experiencing a renaissance as budget second phones,” reads a recent Wall Street Journal piece about the trend, “allowing you to detach from constant notifications and the lure of infinite scroll, without losing the ability to send texts and make calls in an emergency.”


Certified trend or flash in the pan? According to the WSJ, sales in the dumb phone category are rising across various demographics. HMD Global, one of the main producers of dumb phones in today’s sector, reported that sales increased for these phones in 2022; when asked about it, their head of marketing Lars Silberbaur replied, “It’s not a small trend.”


Depending on your view, it may sound like a nice digital detox or analog agony. You may be interested, though, in the productivity gains.


“The dumb phone movement argues that using these pared-down devices can enhance focus and productivity,” writes technologist Kyle Humphrey.

“With fewer distractions, people are able to concentrate on tasks at hand and be more present in their daily lives,” he continued. “Business leaders like Arianna Huffington, who has spoken about her decision to use a dumb phone, claim that these devices have made them more efficient and successful in their professional lives.” Kieran Delamont

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Dumber than you think

Enormously entertaining and mind-bogglingly easy to use, text-generating AI tools are also unreliable and create an avalanche of misinformation. Businesses take note

THE BUSINESS WORLD has been aflutter in the last few months over the prospect and possibility of the new kinds of artificial intelligence-powered tools we’ve seen unveiled.


But as anyone who’s experimented extensively (or even just tinkered around) with these generative tools might be able to tell you, the tools themselves have one major flaw: they make a lot of things up.


“The tech industry often refers to the inaccuracies as ‘hallucinations,’” reports The New York Times. As part of their story, they asked a few AI bots when their newspaper first reported on artificial intelligence; both said 1956, and both produced citations to that effect. Both were wrong: it was 1963 that the paper first used the term. Both citations were at least partially made up. (Another test found that five out of six references produced by ChatGPT were made up.)


Why does it do it? It’s all in the design. Namely, the tools are not designed to be correct, but rather convincing.


“​​The output is a guess based on an algorithm designed to produce the most plausible or probable realistic reading language output relevant to the context of the prompt it has been given,” explained academic Matthew Hillier.


In other words, doesn’t mean it’s correct.


Some believe that businesses should sit up and take notice of this now, before it spirals into a problem ― both for businesses that use them as well as businesses that become victims. A business that uses an AI tool is ultimately responsible for what it outputs ― which poses a problem if they don’t understand how the tool works. A business that becomes the subject of false AI produced info could suffer even more significant losses.


“The already distraught supply chain may suffer increased disruption because of disinformation about a supplier's reliability or safety,” Richard Funso writes, by way of example in a warning piece to businesses about the potential pitfalls of relying on AI for accuracy.  


“With the release of GPT 3.5 and other generative models, it is now the era of AI-everything,” he concludes. “Companies must be prepared to navigate the murky waters of AI-powered disinformation as they conduct their business…if there is one lesson the Covid-19 pandemic has taught, it is that a global disruptor can disrupt society permanently. ChatGPT and other AI models have disrupted society within a noticeably brief period and will continue to do so for the near future.” Kieran Delamont


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