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People walk through the financial district in Toronto, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail)

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The skyscrapers and underground tunnels of Toronto’s financial district will remain quiet throughout the fall as banks, law firms and accounting companies take a cautious approach to reopening head offices, and most employees continue to work from home despite the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions.

Toronto-Dominion Bank said on Wednesday that employees currently working from home should expect to continue working remotely “until the end of the calendar year, and possibly into 2021,” according to a staff memo obtained by The Globe and Mail. This comes a day after the Bank of Nova Scotia told its head office employees in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that they would be allowed to work remotely until next year.

Other companies are also taking a go-slow approach. Back in May, many of Bay Street’s large employers promised the City of Toronto that they would limit the number of staff in office buildings until September.

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With fall approaching, many are now planning for a gradual return to office work and expect that just a fraction of their work force will be back in Toronto’s downtown core in the coming months. An announcement by the government of Ontario Wednesday said Toronto can enter Stage 3 of the province’s coronavirus reopening plan, but it is unlikely to change the employers’ cautious approach.

KPMG, for instance, started letting a limited number of people back into its offices in early July, but is capping the number of people in its GTA locations at 5 per cent of capacity.

“We will re-evaluate our plans for the fall based on the guidance and requirements set out by health authorities in the province and the city,” said KPMG spokesman Kevin Dove. “We likely won’t get to more than 50 per cent of employees given the ongoing need for physical distancing.”

Deloitte is taking a similar approach. Its office on the corner of Toronto’s Yonge Street and Adelaide Street is closed to all but a small number of employees who “have been granted special access for personal well-being or business necessity,” said spokeswoman Tonya Johnson. The company is hoping to bring more back in mid-September, but the maximum will be 10 per cent of capacity in the first phase of reopening, and no visitors or in-person events.

Most large Bay Street firms have offices across the country and are taking similar precautions in other markets. PwC Canada has reopened its offices in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saint John and Oakville, Ont., at 15 per cent of capacity, and plans to reopen its Toronto and Montreal offices at 15 per cent of capacity in September.

“In 2020, working remotely will be the norm, coming into the office will be the exception,” said Chris Dulny, PwC’s chief innovation officer.

Return to work procedures have become part of the weekly conversations Stuart Raftus, chief administrative officer at Canaccord Genuity Group Inc., is having with his team.

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About 30 per cent of the investment dealer’s employees in Vancouver have returned to the office, but just 12.5 per cent in Toronto.

“The word that comes to mind when we discuss the return to work policy is fluid,” he said. “It was a lot easier to get people to stop working in the office, and set them up to work from home, than it is to get people back into the office — from a logistics and safety perspective.”

Bringing more employees back into office towers will require creative management. Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Canada’s largest law firm, has installed plexiglass walls in high-traffic areas such as reception desks and mailrooms. There are arrows on the floors, similar to what is in grocery stores, to control the movement of people, and all employees are expected to wear a mask if they are in a public area.

Around 10 to 20 per cent of BLG’s work force is now working in the office on a voluntary basis, said chief administrative officer Didhiti Bhoumik. The firm hopes to have that number up to 30 to 40 per cent by October, although many employees are likely to come in just a few days a week, Ms. Bhoumik said.

This could be a lasting legacy of COVID-19, she said. A company poll found that 85 per cent of employees wanted to work from home at least one day of the week, even after the pandemic is over.

“I think, longer term, people realize there’s a digital way of working. People kind of realized we can do that, and we will only go [into the office] when we need to discuss things or meet the client,” Ms. Bhoumik said.

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The balancing act on Bay Street will be mirrored in cities across the country, as employers try to manage both government regulation and staff concerns. A Canada-wide poll conducted last week by KPMG found that 54 per cent of people were afraid to return to the workplace due to COVID-19; 45 per cent said they don’t see the point in returning because Canada will likely be hit by a second or third wave of COVID-19 cases.

Interestingly, 72 per cent of respondents told KPMG that they would not mind returning this summer, given the current number of COVID-19 cases in Canada, but they believe there will be a second wave of infections in the fall or winter that will shut down workplaces all over again.

The poll did pick up one bright spot. Four out of five respondents said they trusted that their employer will take the right steps to maintain necessary health and safety precautions.

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