DNA of work forever altered as offices open back up

There have been positives and negatives that have developed from remote work environments over the last two years

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The last two-plus years of pandemic have permanently changed the way Canadians approach work and the workplace.

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While the economy has begun to emerge from lockdowns and restrictions, trends are beginning to emerge about how businesses and their employees approach work.

According to a recent national survey from Colliers, hybrid environments continue to dominate even as companies ramp up their in-office work. Results showed 61 per cent of surveyed companies were still under this model while only 37 per cent had employees full-time at the office.

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“There’s a plethora of options around flexibility, but that seems to be a key benefit that employees both nationwide, provincially and in Calgary are seeking and we’re going to need to have conversations,” said Melanie Peacock, an associate professor of human resources at the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University.

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“It’s going to be incumbent upon executive, senior leaders, managers to have an understanding of that, but then to clearly communicate the reasons behind business decisions to employees and, where possible, to engage them in those conversations.”

There have been positives and negatives that have developed from remote work environments over the last two years. In some cases, it has improved productivity, particularly in individual settings, and has allowed employees to better manage life and family demands.

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Where it has hampered productivity is any time collaboration comes into play. While people are available digitally, there are extra steps involved in getting a hold of people and there has been a loss of connection with co-workers.

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“One of the biggest challenges with a hybrid model is how do you make sure that you provide the opportunity for people to connect and to support your corporate culture,” said Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“Otherwise, you’re basically a mercenary. You’re attached to your company, or your organization, solely by the fact that you’re getting a paycheque from them. There’s no other connection to the company.”

She said this makes it that much harder for companies to keep their employees and develop that loyalty.

Deborah Yedlin, President & CEO of Calgary Chamber of commerce.
Deborah Yedlin, President & CEO of Calgary Chamber of commerce. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Some companies are using community initiatives and charity events to bring their employees together to help build that culture, even if the rest of the time they are working remotely.

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Others are resistant to this change, looking to the way they have operated for generations. But Peacock said this is an issue all companies and organizations need to examine.

“We’ve got to stop saying ‘We’re going back to normal.’ There is no normal,” said Peacock. “In fact, you don’t call it the new normal, it’s an evolution, the pandemic has changed us.”

She said the lived experience of the pandemic will remain with people demanding this be acknowledged and the world of work be examined.

“I think we’ve forever altered the DNA of work,” she said.

Peacock added there are three career generations: early career, mid-career and late career. All three of them have one thing in common: people want meaningful work that allows them to pay their bills.

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Yedlin said the early career stage has a big hurdle as people enter the workforce, especially in remote environments and being separated from the rest of the workforce as they break into an industry. Mentorship and grooming that generation has to be a priority.

“So many of us benefited from being around people,” she said. “That’s a very critical part of building organizations for the future.”

Office workers walk through Brookfield Place in downtown Calgary on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Office workers walk through Brookfield Place in downtown Calgary on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Peacock said there is still more work to be done on technology for those working remotely. While the world became all-too-familiar with Zoom and Teams meetings, there are advancements that can and need to take place to enhance the environment.

She added there is further examination into other options like a four-day work week or changing benefits to reflect actual need and use of employees.

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John Duda, president of real estate management services Canada for Colliers, has been tracking this data throughout the pandemic, but this is the first report where businesses are starting to make decisions about their future and how they will operate — albeit with caution.

One of the bigger trends they are seeing is increasing their flex space to accommodate a hybrid workforce. This takes on different forms and can be anything from businesses renting out a cubicle to a floor or offices on a temporary basis. This is factoring in more when businesses have reduced the amount of permanent office space but still need to accommodate the days when a larger staff is in.

“They gotta sit somewhere, they need somewhere to work; well, if I have flex space in the building or right beside it, that makes it a little bit easier,” he said. “They still have a place to go and we can meet in the main office, so it’s adjusting the way they work.”

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The survey showed 13 per cent of total office space was made up of flexible space, up from seven per cent when they last did the survey this past November.

This further push toward hybrid work environments will also factor into how downtowns are designed and redesigned. If office towers are not going to be full five days a week when the economy is thriving, cities need to figure out how to keep the downtowns vibrant and support services like restaurants busy.

“The kids in their 20s that are in the beginning of their careers don’t expect to be in an office five days a week,” said Yedlin. “That’s just over.”

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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