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Manulife employees connect over coffee at its head office building, recently remodelled with hybrid work and social spaces in mind.Provided

This past August, Serena Ma tested out a new event for colleagues at Manulife – a family-friendly movie night on the lawn of its newly renovated headquarters in Toronto. The reaction, she says, blew her away, with all 500 seats booked in just a few hours.

As assistant vice-president, head of strategic initiatives and global events, Ma leads a team responsible for the planning and delivery of high-impact events and experiences, all designed to drive engagement and connection between colleagues.

“It was an opportunity for people to bring their kids in and meet other family members of colleagues,” says Ma. “It was a really nice means of deepening that connection in a way that aligns to our value of sharing your humanity. These are building blocks for strengthening that sense of community, where you feel you belong to something bigger than your immediate team.”

The transformation of the office building at 200 Bloor Street East has significantly changed how Ma can bring people together, with its expansive open social spaces inside and outside. In addition to the huge lobby with its iconic double-door entrance, there’s a barista on the ground floor and a 21,000-square-foot cafeteria offering affordable multiple meal and snack options as well as foosball tables.

“The most important thing threading through all of the space is that it’s open concept – it feels modern, warm and inviting,” says Ma. “Combined with the outdoor space, when the weather co-operates, it all comes together as a space people want to be in.

“The consistent message we hear is that people are really appreciative of the opportunity to come together away from their desk and computer to connect with colleagues they might not see on a day-to-day basis. It’s also an opportunity to meet leaders whom they might not usually interact with, so it levels the playing field for everyone to get to know each other a bit more socially in a casual environment.”

Senior vice-president Mike Dallas, global head of employee experience, says the aim was to create a very flexible environment that would not only look good, but function in a dynamic way going forward.

“The goal of this transformation was to look at how you do things, not only from an environmental perspective – good use of materials and light and natural space – but accommodating the ever-changing nature of work. So we asked, how do you incorporate technology into the architecture? How do you incorporate movement in the way people meet and design spaces that are multipurpose? We feel we’ve accomplished that quite well,” he says.

Manulife remains committed to its hybrid working model, with upgraded technology for hybrid conferences and meetings. Dallas says the physical space is designed to blend people on site and virtually as a regular working norm.

“The design enables people to work as they do in their home footprints – with time outside, inside and in different parts of the campus,” says Dallas. “People got challenged being confined to one space, so that influenced our design in terms of it being a whole building view rather than just segment by segment.

“Then there’s what people need from a total-self work perspective, so that manifested in the cafeteria and wellness centre, including spaces for things you need to do to live your whole life – for reflection, for working mothers, and in our Legacy Spaces in Toronto and our Waterloo offices to build awareness of Indigenous history and reconciliation.

“This is not a static design. It’s an organic space that keeps evolving and we feel prepared to do that in partnership with the feedback we get.”

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Advertising feature produced by Canada’s Top 100 Employers, a division of Mediacorp Canada Inc. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.

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