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People order lunch in the newly renovated cafeteria, at Manulife headquarters in Toronto on March 7.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

At 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the newly renovated lobby at Manulife Financial Corp.’s head office in Toronto is bustling with employees ordering freshly brewed espresso shots and frothy vanilla lattes from the company’s in-house barista. Groups of colleagues are gathered around informal meeting areas with sleek modern couches and lush green plants covering the walls.

The transformation is part of Manulife’s plan to woo employees back to the office during a time when many Canadian companies continue to see resistance from workers who wish to stay home. Manulife’s chief executive Roy Gori says a complete overhaul of the company’s nearly 100-year-old office building, as well as pro-actively listening to employee feedback on their hybrid arrangement, has already paid off.

“We’re not seeing any decrease in productivity,” Mr. Gori says over lunch in the company’s renovated second floor cafeteria. “If anything, I think we’re going to see – and probably already are seeing – productivity improve because people are now being more purposeful with their time.”

Last year, the company announced that employees would be required to return to the office three days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and one flexible day. But after hearing employees wanted a more gradual hybrid arrangement, Mr. Gori dropped it down to two mandatory days.

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Roy Gori, president & CEO of Manulife, in the renovated front lobby of the company's headquarters.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Now, every Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Gori sees about 91 per cent of his Toronto staff who worked in-office pre-pandemic have returned. The company’s U.S. headquarters in Boston, Mass., which has a similar requirement, is operating at about 90 per cent, while the Asian operations have already hit its pre-pandemic level of 95 per cent in-office attendance.

What is surprising, says Mr. Gori, is that on certain nonmandatory days the company has also seen a boost in attendance. For example, in Canada, Monday is the third most popular day of the week for attendance, with about 70 per cent of employees in-office.

The numbers stand out for a company operating in Toronto – a city that has fallen behind the average occupancy achieved in major U.S. cities, with an average weekly attendance rate of 43 per cent in downtown office buildings, according to recent data by Strategic Regional Research Alliance. The U.S. is closer to 50 per cent, while Europe and the Middle East have seen office attendance return to 70 per cent to 90 per cent, according to research by Jones Lang Lasalle, a global commercial real estate company. In Asia, that number jumps to around 80 per cent to 110 per cent – meaning some workers are spending more time in office than they did before the pandemic.

Three years after the majority of companies sent employees home for a temporary lockdown, the vast majority of them want to see people back in the office. But executives at large organizations have different ideas about how to best do that – whether it’s making the return voluntary, mandated, or somewhere in between. Tactics also include adding new perks to office life, and redesigning office space.

Earlier this month, RBC chief executive Dave McKay became the first major bank leader to mandate a stricter policy, calling on his employees to return to the office three to four days a week starting May 1. During an analyst call, Mr. McKay blamed the lack of office attendance for a drop in productivity and innovation at his company.

The reason behind Manulife’s success in Canada, says Mr. Gori, is that it has transformed the office into an “inviting space,” rather than a place workers are being forced to return to. But it also involves his decision to combine mandatory days with work from home – rather than provide an entirely flexible work arrangement. Despite some hesitation at first from workers, the company has seen a jump in employee satisfaction scores in recent surveys – above pre-pandemic levels.

“Other companies are not choosing the [mandatory] route, but we think the combination of hybrid and compulsory days is going to be a part of what makes our culture better in the long run,” Mr. Gori says, sitting in a booth in Manulife’s second floor cafeteria. “I have no worries that some of my competitors have got a very different philosophy. It’s a competitive advantage that we will see take three years to pan out entirely.”

But to start, Mr. Gori knew he had to “earn the commute.”

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A complete overhaul of the office has reopened the iconic double door entrance off 200 Bloor Street East, that now leads into a lobby of sprawling open social space.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A complete overhaul of the office has reopened the iconic double door entrance off 200 Bloor Street East, that now leads into a lobby of sprawling open social space. As well, the company eliminated overly large executive offices, revived the company cafeteria and upgraded its wellness and fitness centre. Like many office towers today, the building has upgraded its technology capabilities for hybrid conferences and meetings.

In addition to a ground floor barista, the cafeteria – a 21,000 square foot open concept food hall – offers multiple meal and snack options, as well as foosball tables. The company provides a 25-per-cent discount on food and beverages, with kiosks that serve both Tim Hortons and Starbucks. A separate food station sits at the entrance of the cafeteria, offering different menu items every week, such as southeast Asian curries, Italian fare and tacos.

“People wanted variety,” Mr. Gori says. “We used to have terrible junk food and we are a company that promotes wellness and healthy living so we needed to change our menu.”

In order to drive the masses through the doors, employers need to create value for workers, says Heather Haslam, vice-president of marketing at payroll processor ADP Canada.

“Companies need to create purposeful reasons for people to want to come back,” Ms. Haslam said in an interview. “The idea of having one day where the whole team is face to face brings value, because if I come in and sit at my desk on Zoom all day, there is zero value for me to pay for that commute, for parking or dry cleaning. It is not worth the cost of my time.”

Something as simple as a daily snack cart has sparked social interactions at ADP. Filled with a variety of cookies, candy, chips, as well as several kinds of fruit and sugar-free items, employees take turns pushing the cart along the corridors at the company’s office in Toronto.

“This is about connections,” Ms. Haslam adds. “I love free food, but it isn’t actually about the food. It’s about a group of people taking a quick break, chatting with each other and building psychological safety at work. That requires trust, and trust comes in the workplace when you have that human connection.”

About 83 per cent of companies across the country are making efforts to entice employees to work more frequently in the office, including offering office perks, according to research by Robert Half Canada Inc., a global human resource consulting firm. These can include free meals, commuter benefits, enhanced workplace set-ups such small conference rooms, offering greater engagement opportunities with leadership, or scheduling social events.

As well, almost 40 per cent of employees in Canada say a search for better office perks and benefits are among the top reasons they are actively looking to leave their current job, according to Robert Half Canada.

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When 2023 began, Rakuten Canada, with a directive from corporate head office, started offering catered lunches three days a week. Staff in the Toronto office help themselves to the Indian food that was on the menu on April 6, 2023.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Online retailer Rakuten has been adding to its employee incentives throughout the entire pandemic. It currently requires its employees to be in the office three days a week. However, only Tuesday and Thursdays are mandatory, known as “anchor days” among the staff, says Jennifer LaForge, general manager of Rakuten Canada.

To help ease the shift back into the office, the Toronto-based company provides a “light breakfast” and catered lunch three times a week for about 40 of its Canadian based employees. (Another 44 employees who report to the office are located outside the province and work remotely).

“So far, this has been one of the greatest benefits to our culture because now we have a full kitchen, with all our tables occupied and everyone sitting together creating friendships, across business units, across departments and creating a stronger culture,” Ms. LaForge said.

With a smaller employee base, Rakuten is able to be more reactive with office perks that cater to employee needs. When the pandemic first hit, the company offered all staff access to care.com, a home-care provider service to help families with child care, tutoring or pet services.

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At Rakuten Canada’s Toronto office employees can help themselves to a draw full of chips and a fridge stocked with a variety of drinks, among other snacks provided.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Now, with transportation and commuting being one of the biggest roadblocks for employees to return, Rakuten has added a $100 a month transportation allowance for those who come into the office. The money can be used for any commuting cost, such as parking, transit fares or taxi and UBER rides.

Most weeks, the company has social gatherings during “anchor days,” ordering beer kegs from a local brewery to celebrate holidays or milestones.

“I would love to see who figures out how to build a culture across a fully remote team that is as powerful as the one we have now,” Ms. LaForge said.

Sheila Botting, head of professional services for the Americas at real estate company Avison Young, has spent years advising companies on how to redesign their corporate space.

She says she’s noticed that the companies who are spending the time – and the money – to develop “high-performance dynamic work environments” are the ones attracting and retaining top talent.

“It’s a war for talent, especially for the digital talent across all generations. And that’s why leading companies are thinking about the programs and all of the extra things that they can do to inspire people.”

Fidelity Investments ULC Canada is among the companies that are fighting to get employees back in the office with personal baristas and renovated social spaces. When the company realized it was going to have an entirely empty office for an extended period of time, it began planning renovations to make larger open meeting areas and update the company lunchroom. As well, the renovation added a mother’s room for pumping and storing breastmilk, a library, and a prayer and meditation room.

“We wanted to create spaces where people would meet up and collaborate rather than spend their time coming in but remain at their desks all day,” says Diana Godfrey, senior vice-president of human resources and corporate affairs at Fidelity Canada. “It’s a different way of engaging people than we have done in the past.”

In the fall of 2022, the financial services company started to mandate employees return to the office between four to 12 days a month in a flexible work arrangement. While Fidelity had supplied hot beverages such as espresso and coffee in its kitchen prior to the pandemic, it now brings in an in-house barista four days a week to serve up free specialty beverages such as cappuccinos, iced coffees and London fogs. With staff spread across two adjacent towers, the company positioned the coffee bar on a floor with a connecting bridge to encourage employees to interact with colleagues they may not bump into regularly.

It’s become such a popular perk that the company is hiring a second barista for peak hours.

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Mr. Gori speaks to baristas in the newly renovated cafe, within the lobby of Manulife headquarters in Toronto. He says attrition has been lower than the industry average with “not a lot of people exiting.”Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Located across the street from Toronto’s City Hall, Fidelity is well aware of the deteriorating public transit and congested traffic causing longer commute times. The company has been addressing those concerns with the local government, as well as advocating with the Toronto Transit Commission to reinstate a corporate discount program. It also reached out to Metrolinx, which operates the GO Transit services, to inquire about a similar discount.

“It’s about having conversations with the right people,” Ms. Godfrey said. “We know we aren’t going to solve all the transit issues in the city, but if enough companies advocate for change or ask the government to encourage discount programs, we can work together for change.”

While most executives agree that policy changes are necessary for today’s work force, they’ll have to make those decisions without knowing what the risks are in terms of retention.

At Manulife, there was a discussion around whether implementing compulsory work days would spark a number of employees to leave. But Mr. Gori says his attrition has been lower than the industry average with “not a lot of people exiting.”

“We knew that when we made the call for mandatory days, it was with the realization we could lose people but we have to have the conviction to stand for something,” he adds.

“I’m less stressed about the number of days we mandate and much more focused on whether people leave the office saying that was awesome, because once they see that it was worthwhile, they will come in on their own. We already see that happening on Mondays.”

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