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Canada’s big banks are embracing flexible working arrangements as they plot a broad return to offices this fall, emphasizing to staff that hybrid work is here to stay – but so are bustling offices.

The banks, which are some of the country’s largest employers, are aiming to reopen many of their offices and start bringing back a majority of staff as early as September, and stretching into October and November in some cases. For many employees, that will mean returning to offices for two to four days a week, although others may have to go in more or less often.

Staff who have grown accustomed to remote work will need to adjust to a mix of masks, physical distancing, self-screening and booking desks through apps, holding meetings in person with virtual participants, and deciding where to work based on the tasks they are performing.

Even as some U.S. banks take a more rigid stand, setting fixed dates to call staff back to offices, Canada’s banks are trying to avoid being overly prescriptive. Most have drafted broad principles to set a bankwide tone and are pushing decisions down to mid-level executives and managers about how much flexibility staff in different divisions and roles should have. Where there are disputes, there will be protocols and senior executives to resolve them.

Top bankers are eschewing a one-size-fits-all approach as too rigid for organizations with tens of thousands of employees each, and wide arrays of job categories, even though hybrid work arrangements will be more complex to manage. Most bank employees in Canada will have much more leeway to work remotely and tailor their schedules than they had before COVID-19 emptied out many offices. But banks are also serving up reminders that gathering at offices with some regularity will remain a mainstay of banking culture.

None of the banks’ return-to-office plans are set in stone. “It won’t be perfect,” and institutions will have to adapt on the fly, said Helena Gottschling, Royal Bank of Canada’s chief human resources officer, in an interview.

But hybrid work could play a role in shaping a new war for talent as economies reopen. In survey after survey, many employees say they expect more flexibility and will look favourably on employers that offer it.

“If you want to be an employer of choice, you need to recognize that your colleagues want a different kind of working relationship with the bank,” said Kenn Lalonde, chief human resources officer for Toronto-Dominion Bank, in an interview. “We need to meet that expectation.”

He added: “At the same time, make no mistake, we have a bank to run.”

RBC, with nearly 87,000 full-time employees, has concluded “hybrid work is here to stay,” Ms. Gottschling said. The bank is crafting an approach that offers “flexibility within guardrails,” she said, and has started handing out a 16-page hybrid work playbook to help guide managers.

That manual acknowledges some tasks, such as focused work and routine meetings, can easily be done remotely. But it also says hybrid work “will be supported where feasible and optimal,” and encourages employees to live within a commutable distance, while allowing them to decide how far away that can be. “We believe proximity still matters,” Ms. Gottschling said. “It’s a bit of an art, it’s not just a science.”

How hybrid working works

Banks in Canada have avoided setting minimum or maximum numbers of days in the office across the board. For staff in branches and other key operational roles who stayed on the front lines throughout the pandemic, not much will change. But on average, RBC expects most employees will come in two to four days a week.

National Bank employees may be in the office anywhere from one to five days for different roles. “Our hybrid work will be fully flexible,” and agreed between leaders and their teams, said Danny Déry, vice-president of National Bank’s employee experience consulting centre. But he added: “It’s a hybrid work model, it’s not full-time work-from-home.”

In statements, Bank of Montreal and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce each said they expect to start a broad-based move to hybrid work as soon as September, and how much time employees spend at the office will depend on the kind of work they do.

Some bankers should expect to return to their desks more often than others. Traders are being called back to trading floors after taking terminals home for much of the pandemic. And commercial bankers who nurture relationships with clients “will be coming back more readily, sooner,” TD’s Mr. Lalonde said. “Because that business has an apprenticeship model – how you learn, how you work credit files, how you build client relationships.”

Last week, he told TD staff in an internal memo that some employees may come in one or two days a week, and others three to four days, depending on their jobs. They will have added flexibility, but “we believe there’s absolutely loads of benefits of being in person and coming into the office,” he said.

To set guidelines, TD built models to categorize jobs and decide how staff can return to offices in stages. Bank of Nova Scotia is building a toolkit to help managers that will outline four archetypes based on the proportion of work in each category that benefits from in-person interaction. And National Bank has started holding workshops on hybrid work.

Montreal-based National Bank has a three-step plan to return to offices. The first phase already under way, known as “Summer Camp,” reopened booking for some meeting rooms and allows up to 25 per cent of employees in Montreal and Toronto to be in offices at once, with about 10 per cent to 15 per cent coming in so far.

The next step, dubbed “Back to School,” starts Sept. 7 and will increase the cap to 40 per cent, with food trucks and activities planned to welcome back staff. The final “Return to the New Normal” stage will allow for full occupancy – ideally by late fall or early 2022, but “this one is more uncertain,” Mr. Déry said.

The configuration of many bank offices may also change to emphasize meeting rooms and open spaces to collaborate, rather than assigned cubicles and offices with doors. Over the long term, that may help banks shed some real estate and cut costs, but it will be a multiyear process as leases expire and new habits take shape. For now, banks expect they will need space to meet physical-distancing guidelines.

Vaccination encouraged, but optional

Banks are urging employees to get vaccinated, and have played host to clinics to help them in some cases. But so far, no major bank has made plans to require employees to be vaccinated or disclose their vaccination status to work in an office. “It’s really not in our plans,” TD’s Mr. Lalonde said.

As a result, masks may be a feature of office life for the near future. RBC, TD and National Bank require employees in Canada to wear them when on the move or unable to maintain physical distance from colleagues, based on public-health guidelines.

Several banks held pilot projects to try out rapid testing for COVID-19, and although it proved difficult to deploy it for all employees, some banks will maintain targeted testing programs. National Bank will use rapid testing in specific locations, office floors and branches that could be at greater risk of an outbreak. TD is providing at-home tests in four provinces to employees who request them. Scotiabank has twice-weekly testing for some staff in head offices, branches in hot-spot areas and operations centres.

“It’s not like we’re having to test the entire population because the majority will be vaccinated,” said Barbara Mason, chief human resources officer at Scotiabank, in an interview. “Rapid testing is complementary for the minority.”

Slow and steady

Canadian banks have had a chance to try out new strategies in offices abroad as U.S. states and parts of Europe and Asia lifted public-health restrictions sooner than Canada. Some of BMO’s U.S. staff started returning in June, and RBC has been bringing back British staff on a voluntary basis, most of whom spend two or three days a week in the office.

In the United States, there is competitive pressure from banking giants such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, where chief executive officers have called remote work “an aberration” and said if employees can dine at restaurants, they should be able to come to offices. Even at home, Canadian banks have faced criticism over the cautious approach they are taking: Allied Properties REIT CEO Michael Emory, a prominent office landlord, chastised bank CEOs for a perceived “lack of leadership,” urging them to “find a backbone” and bring remote workers back.

But Canada’s bankers have resisted the urge to play catch-up. They say the pandemic dragged on long enough that employees’ expectations and habits have changed substantially. “Just saying, on some magic date everybody needs to come back is not essentially respectful of the change that’s fundamentally occurred over the last 16 months,” TD’s Mr. Lalonde said.

So many of the factors banks consider are constantly shifting – including public-health guidelines, client preferences and employee safety concerns – that they concluded a hasty return to old ways of working wasn’t practical.

“Slow and steady here wins the race because there are too many macro variables that we still don’t feel 100-per-cent confident in,” Scotiabank’s Ms. Mason said. “That’s why we’re data-driven, not date-driven.”

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