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A red light on Bay Street in Canada's financial district is shown in Toronto on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Many companies have reopened their offices as COVID-19 restrictions lift for employees to return voluntarily starting in February or early March.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canadian business leaders are preparing to bring employees back to the office as COVID-19 mask mandates begin to lift across the country and daily case counts continue to decline.

In recent weeks, Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia lifted provincial mask mandates for most indoor settings, including public office buildings. Yukon is set to lift its mandate later this week, while Nova Scotia and Ontario will follow suit on March 21, with Ontario public-service employees required to return to the office three times a week starting on April 4.

For now, most large companies are requiring employees be fully vaccinated before they return, but many are also hesitant to impose overarching mandates for in-person days. Instead, they’re deferring by allowing teams and individual departments to determine hybrid work schedules.

Many companies reopened their offices for employees to return voluntarily starting in February or early March. Others say hybrid models will be put in place starting in April.

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The Canada Life Assurance Co. said it would bring its employees back for a mandatory return in May, with teams defining their own schedules. “If there are employees who do not wish to come back to the office in May, we will evaluate those on a case-by-case basis,” Canada Life spokesperson Liz Kulyk said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Spokespeople for Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of Nova Scotia said their banks have reopened some departments and will transition to a hybrid model, with employees returning to the office with greater regularity in the coming months.

Most employees in BMO’s capital markets division will be expected to spend two to three days a week in the office as of April 4, according to a staff memo Alan Tannenbaum, head of global investment and corporate banking, sent in February.

CIBC’s head of people, culture and brand, Sandy Sharman, said employees will start returning during the week of March 21 using a hybrid model. Scotiabank will commence a 10-week phased return to the office April 11.

On March 14, HSBC opened new offices in Vancouver and Toronto with a maximum 50 per cent capacity. The bank expects many employees to continue working from home at least a few days each week, according to Sharon Wilks, head of external communications.

TD Canada Trust did not expand on its reopening plans in time for publication.

Major law firms have also opened their offices while allowing voluntary remote work. Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt offices are “open and available for anyone who wishes,” with most employees expected to be in the office at least two days a week, a company spokesperson said. But the firm also has attendance caps and factors in local health conditions.

A spokesperson for Norton Rose Fulbright said the firm will start to implement three types of roles – fully in office, fully remote and hybrid – in the coming months. Employees working in a hybrid position will be expected to be in the office eight to 12 days a month, said corporate communications manager Ali Aziz.

Sun Life Financial Inc. and Saskatchewan-based Nutrien Ltd. will both begin to implement hybrid plans on April 4. According to Nutrien’s chief human resources officer, Mike Webb, recent internal company surveys showed more than 50 per cent of employees wanted to return to full-time in-person work.

Other companies are taking a more cautious approach.

On Monday, Manulife Financial Corp. reopened its offices for voluntary return, but chief executive officer Roy Gori said he is in “no rush” to implement mandatory in-office days. The insurer had originally planned to reopen some of its Canadian offices on Jan. 24 under a three-day-in-office working arrangement, but the company decided to postpone those plans earlier this year after COVID-19 cases began to spike because of the Omicron variant.

“We’re not through this pandemic yet, and obviously people are still very anxious around the current situation,” Mr. Gori said in an interview with The Globe.

Independent wealth management firm Richardson Wealth Ltd. has begun to reopen offices and intends to introduce a more permanent hybrid work policy, with details being finalized in early April. According to Richardson’s chief people officer, Lynne Brejak, “productivity won’t be lost if we continue to allow employees to also work from home.”

Yet some experts say recalling workers now could be short-sighted in terms of talent retention and company operations.

Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, has been studying remote work during the pandemic. In a series of surveys of 26,000 Canadian employees, Prof. Duxbury found that, on average, those who worked in offices before the pandemic want to return either one or two days a week. “You’re at risk if you insist on everybody coming back to work, when a lot of people don’t want that,” she said.

While some companies have publicized their hybrid work plans, Prof. Duxbury said, many she has contacted have not been strategic in planning the details. These include which days employees come into the office, how teams overlap, what work they will do there and how managers will oversee employees in two different places.

“Very few companies have had the level of discussion they need to manage a successful return to work,” Prof. Duxbury said. “They’re doing that by the seat of their pants.”

While office occupancy is still at just 12 per cent of prepandemic levels, that number is expected to rise to 25 per cent or more in April, according to Toronto-based Strategic Regional Research Alliance. The research firm’s data, collected every two weeks since May, 2020, show that current occupancy levels are below what they were last fall, before the Omicron wave, but up from February.

“There’s a sense of optimism this time around,” said Grant Humes, executive director of the Toronto Financial District BIA. “Hopefully nothing gets in our way.”

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