On some days this summer, at the downtown Toronto office of Humi, a human resources software company, a couple dozen employees could be seen at their desks, or taking advantage of the opportunity to chat with colleagues in person. But for an office space that can accommodate its entire staff of 150 people, it’s felt virtually empty these last months.
The company has had a remote-first approach to working since the pandemic hit, meaning that employees work most of their days from home and only go into the office if they choose to. But as public-health restrictions on gathering and wearing masks were lifted, Humi’s human resources department had hoped to see more employees opting to head in.
“The usage of our office was drastically lower than what we expected,” said Andrea Bartlett, the tech company’s director of people operations. “Our offices are by the waterfront and we thought that, in the summer, that would incentivize people to come in. But we’re just not seeing that.”
In most parts of the country, life has resumed some semblance of prepandemic normalcy – gyms are open and filled with people; concert arenas, sports centres and movie theatres are packed; festivals of all kinds have taken place again. But the office has been an exception, and many buildings in the downtown cores of major cities are still largely empty.
Indeed, the most recent data from the real estate company Avison Young shows that foot traffic in office buildings in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this July was still 54.7 per cent below what it was in early March, 2020, before the pandemic hit.
Now, since many people aren’t voluntarily returning, some employers are beginning to make it compulsory for employees to come back into the office for a minimum number of days a week.
“You’re starting to see employers give employees a bit more of an assertive nudge,” said Darryl Wright, a consultant at Ernst & Young Canada leading the firm’s Future of Work group, adding that the new policies mark a shift in an employer-employee balance of power that has been skewed toward the latter group for much of the pandemic.
In mid-August, Royal Bank of Canada’s chief executive Dave McKay sent out a memo to 89,000-plus employees telling them that they had to return to the office at least two times a week starting in September. That same week, Apple employees in the company’s California headquarters were told that they would have to work in person three times a week.
The Bay Street law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP, which employs about 1,200 people, has mandated that its employees work from the office three or four days a week starting Sept. 6, calling it a “future hybrid” model of work. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation told employees in an internal memo that they were expected back into the office twice a week starting mid-September. And Globe and Mail employees, too, have been asked back into the office, at least twice a week starting after Labour Day weekend.
Some companies have stopped short of mandating that workers come back into the office, but their attitude toward employees working from home full time has become less enthusiastic.
“Employers were hoping for a more pro-active response this summer in their request for employees to spend more time in the office. That did not happen, so we’re seeing them change their tone,” Mr. Wright said. “They are still adding caveats like ‘we embrace flexibility’ but they are also clearly stating we want you back in the office on some days.”
When asked if they were planning to impose a definitive return-to-work mandate, a spokesperson for the consulting giant Ernst & Young Canada said that there would be no requirement for most employees to come back into the office, but that they had been encouraging people to “be on site more frequently.”
KPMG Canada, too, has shied away from imposing a return-to-the-office mandate, saying only it was working toward a “reconnection phase” that “enhances the best aspects of in person and virtual work.”
A statement from the wealth manager IGM Financial would not say if they were going to institute mandatory in-office days, but told The Globe that their employee attendance rate was consistently at 30 per cent. “We anticipate launching our next phase of our hybrid working model in the fall,” the company said, although more details of what that will entail is still forthcoming.
For her part, Ms. Bartlett of Humi is still reluctant to set a minimum number of days employees must come in. The company, she says, has always prided itself on “leaving decision-making in the hands of employees.” She admits, however, that HR professionals are definitely facing a conundrum over how to get more employees back to their desks, and whether it is even vital to do so.
“There are many questions we have to ask ourselves,” she told The Globe in a recent interview. “To what degree are we comfortable risking our talent? How do we navigate different generational expectations in the work force about working from home? What about people who have moved outside a commuting zone? These are all big challenges that we don’t have clear answers for yet.”
Experts who have been observing how employers have steered their way through the pandemic are divided on exactly why a growing number of companies are getting more firm about returning to the office.
In official statements, companies often express concern about how a lack of in-person collaboration negatively impacts ideation and innovation. Mr. McKay, the Royal Bank of Canada CEO, justified the bank’s return to office mandate by arguing that technology could not replicate the “energy, spontaneity, big ideas or true sense of belonging” that come from working together in person.
Lindsay Coffin, a researcher with the Conference Board of Canada, who has spent years analyzing the work-from-home phenomenon, believes that employers have been wanting staff to return to office and were only waiting for the right moment when a new policy could stick. “I think for the last 2½ years they were following what provincial health authorities were saying about gathering,” she says. “Now there aren’t any restrictions, so it feels like employers can indicate to employees that they want them back in the office.”
To Ms. Bartlett, financially justifying the existence of a largely empty office might also be a factor in why bosses want their workers back at their desks.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that a big part of the conversation around returning to the office is the financial burden of leases, and company assets and equipment sitting idle,” she said.
Darren Murph, head of remote at the San Francisco-based tech company Gitlab Inc., has spent much of the past two years advising companies on how to transition their work forces into fully remote ones – and says the reversal comes from several different motivations. “Some companies have 40-year leases on buildings. Others have leaders who just don’t want to change, who have egos. Others do not have the funds to reinvest in retraining their work force to adapt to full remote work, or redesign their offices,” he told The Globe.
Mr. Wright believes that the reason why companies are suddenly trying to get more employees back into the office stems from them being in a more favourable economic position to do so. “The narrative of a looming recession, and the inflationary environment we are in has played into the hands of the employer,” he said.
That fact, however, is debatable. The unemployment rate in Canada is still at 4.9 per cent – the lowest on record. And in nearly every industry across every province, according to a June, 2022, report from Royal Bank of Canada, there is a labour shortage. For example, businesses posted almost 70 per cent more job openings in June, 2022, than before the pandemic, the report said.
By some accounts, employees are not reacting well to being forced back into the office. Hiring experts and employment lawyers say they are beginning to see a growing trend of employees leaving their jobs after their employers required them to return.
Recruitment expert Julie Labrie, president of Bluesky Personnel Solutions, a recruitment agency that specializes in French-English bilingual positions, told The Globe that dozens of applicants have reached out to her seeking new options when their companies pivoted back to full time in the office.
“They want to remain at home as much as possible because they have enjoyed that flexibility for two years,” Ms. Labrie said. “They are not interested in doing five days a week any more.”
Bram Lecker, principal of Lecker & Associates, an employment law firm, said the company has received many calls from clients looking for advice about leaving their jobs after return-to-office mandates were put into place. Mr. Lecker said their reasons were often economic – while working from home, they were able to save money on commuting costs, lunches and daycare.
But legally, employers can dictate where their employee works from, unless there is a specific clause in the employee’s contract that specifies remote work as an option, according to Nadia Zaman, an employment lawyer with Rudner Law. “Many employers have been communicating with staff throughout the pandemic and had indicated that remote work was an indefinite arrangement,” she said.
Where it becomes tricky legal terrain for an employer, believes Ms. Zaman, is in cases where employees need to be accommodated because of a disability or because they are immunocompromised and have a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19. “Absent any legitimate need based on [the human rights] code-protected grounds like disability and family status, an employer is not obligated to continue letting an employee work from home indefinitely,” she said.
The call for office workers to return to their desks is coming from more than just the C-suite – mayors of some of the largest North American cities have suggested employers force workers back into offices. At the Democratic Committee’s Nominating Convention in February, New York mayor Eric Adams told leaders of major companies that empty buildings and deserted downtowns were holding back the city’s pandemic recovery.
And in August, Toronto Mayor John Tory told both employers and employees at a tech industry event that it was important for companies to bring back an “in-person” work culture – and stressed that, especially for new junior employees, going to the office has benefits. “Can I offer some advice? This is a bit self-serving as I’m trying to promote it for the good of the city … but if you are concerned about your position because let’s say you were most recently hired last and worried about being first out, the best thing you can do is show up to the office,” he said.
Ultimately, in the current phase of the pandemic, many organizations are figuring out their back-to-office policies by trial and error, believes Mr. Wright. His own research on how companies are making decisions about hybrid work showed employers tend to fall into two groups: optimists and pessimists.
The optimists were those who fully embraced the idea of flexible work, arguing that it actually makes employees more invested in their workplace. The pessimists aren’t convinced the hybrid model is going to work long term and have been waiting for the pandemic to end, doing very little to change the design of their office space to accommodate flexible work arrangements.
One thing is for certain: Over the next weeks and months, people on both sides of the debate are going to get a better sense of what’s working and what isn’t. “You’re seeing this all play out right now in the different approaches companies are taking,” says Mr. Wright, “but it remains to be seen what the perfect solution is.”
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