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Before this pandemic is over, you could very well return to your office, and work. What awaits you there will be strange, challenging, awkward and, for some, the possibility to feel a little bit normal again.

Some companies in Canada already have employees in the office, while others are preparing to admit small numbers on a voluntary basis in the coming weeks. Around 38 per cent of companies surveyed by market intelligence firm IDC Canada have opened offices in a limited capacity, and another 11 per cent are planning to do so this month.

Is the office era over? The surprising truth about working from home

Just as much of the business world was thrust into a massive remote work experiment roughly six months ago, another experiment is underway as companies figure out how to blend remote work with time in the office. That hybrid model, in which employees have flexibility about where and how they work, is likely to become much more common, forcing companies to reassess their long-term office needs.

Individuals venturing back, meanwhile, will be faced with a host of new challenges. There will be social dilemmas – is that coworker stifling a cough? There will be unfamiliar rules – should that many people really be in the conference room? And anxiety over what’s expected of them – can too much remote work hurt a career?

One thing is for sure, though: Your office will look and feel very different.

Before you get there

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

When you reach your office’s front door again, know that a lot of planning brought you there. Many companies started preparing for a return to offices almost as soon as they shuttered them. “We started our planning quite a bit in advance of our July reopening to make sure we had everything in place,” said Silvia Montefiore, Canadian managing partner for business enablement and operations at KPMG LLP. Nationally, offices are limited to 20 per cent capacity, though Toronto is capped at just 5 per cent for now.

But the most basic question is why bring people back at all. In some cases, the goal is to help employees who have been struggling at home, whether because of loneliness, noisy roommates, or a litany of other factors. “There’s an element of the work force that is tremendously uncomfortable and suffering at home,” said Ashira Gobrin, chief people officer at Wave Financial Inc. in Toronto, which offers accounting and other financial software for small businesses. Wave reopened its headquarters on a voluntary basis in July, and between 50 and 60 people (about 20 per cent of the work force) have since tried out the office again. Employees are divided into two teams that are permitted to come in on alternating weeks.

Other businesses, such as PwC Canada, hope to recapture the collaboration and creativity that physical offices engender. “You want to have those collisions of people, you want to have people trading ideas, and you want teams collaborating,” said chief innovation officer Chris Dulny. PwC started opening offices in July, and its Toronto location will admit employees again on Sept. 9, at 15 per cent capacity. (The firm will only remove capacity restrictions once a vaccine is available.)

Collaboration is important for the United Steelworkers Canada, too, which opened the doors at its Toronto head office at the end of June. Staff with child care responsibilities or health issues can continue working from home, but most of the union’s 50 office employees have returned. Being in the office is also a show of solidarity with the 90 per cent of the 225,000 union members in Canada who can’t do their jobs – namely, forging steel – from home, said Mark Rowlinson, assistant to the national director of the union.

Ensuring office towers are full of people is critical to Michael Cooper’s business, so it’s not surprising he’s bringing his own employees back. “We want as much normalcy in our lives as possible,” Mr. Cooper said, who is CEO of Dream Office Real Estate Investment Trust and founder of Dream Unlimited Corp. in Toronto. Senior management, about 60 people, have been asked to return to the office every day starting Sept. 14, while the rest of the work force is split into two groups that will come in on alternating weeks. (Each group is around 90 people.) “We are definitely more productive in person,” Mr. Cooper said. “I would say during the summer, people have gotten a lot more casual about work.”

Employees with child care or health issues can continue to work from home, but Mr. Cooper would like everyone else to show up. “We hope it does not come down to people refusing,” he said, adding employees will be given individual tours before the reopening later this month to get comfortable. “If they still say they don’t want to do it, we will have to talk some more. We are going to be chill.”

Flexibility in work arrangements is key for many companies. “People will remember how we treated them during this pandemic, so we’re really trying to treat them as well as we can,” said Robert Ouellette, chief corporate services officer at WSP Global Inc. The engineering company’s Montreal office is officially reopening next week, limited to 25 per cent capacity. “We’re not forcing people to go in to work.”

9 AM: Getting through the door

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

Your building’s lobby may more closely resemble airport security than a workplace. Employers are requiring workers to answer a health questionnaire every day before entering the office. The questions are typically identical to the COVID-19 self-assessments offered by health authorities in Canada, and some companies have embedded questionnaires into custom desktop or mobile applications for employees.

Telemedicine firm Wello, based in Calgary, introduced a self-screening tool for businesses earlier this year. Each day, managers receive a report of employees who have been cleared to work and those who have not. (The latter group can then be connected to a member of Wello’s clinical team.) Users of the tool are typically from the retail or manufacturing industries, but that’s changing. “We have a great deal of interest on the corporate side as well,” said president and chief revenue officer Lori Casselman.

Temperature checks will be required for some employees, including those at Dream and law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. “The prevailing view among Canadian privacy lawyers is that non-contact temperature screenings are on-side the law as long as they’re properly implemented,” said Brian Thiessen, a partner at Osler in Calgary who practises employment and privacy law. Employees should be informed beforehand, and ideally temperature screening should be as discreet as possible, out of earshot of the next person. Mr. Thiessen said employers should only record the names of those who test above the temperature limit, and destroy any data when it’s no longer needed.

9:15 AM: Arriving at your desk

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

Changes to the office will have been made in your absence. Two-way hallways are becoming one-way only, with arrows on the floor indicating the direction. Chairs could be removed from meeting rooms to discourage people from congregating, or conference rooms closed entirely. Common areas designed to facilitate employee interactions are currently off-limits. Hand sanitizer will be everywhere. Cleaning will be intensified.

If you bike or run to work, you will not be at your freshest throughout the day: Your office shower is probably closed. Steve Fleck, an executive vice-president at engineering, architecture and design company Stantec Inc., has been cycling to and from the Vancouver office. “I don’t have a place to shower, which has other health and safety concerns,” he deadpanned.

When Dale Schattenkirk, a partner at KPMG in Toronto, now heads to the office, he has to book his workspace in advance, even though headcount is limited to just 5 per cent. His movements through the building, such as when he visits another floor, are tracked via his passcard. “It’s not about trying to follow someone. It’s about looking at whether we’re keeping everybody safe,” Mr. Schattenkirk said. KPMG, through working with its landlord, can track how many people are on any one of its three floors, and use the data to help inform how to safely bring back larger numbers of employees.

IDC’s open concept office in Toronto is less open than it was, as barriers have been erected between workstations. Open office designs were maligned even before the pandemic, with complaints about noise levels and a lack of privacy. Evan Hardie, a research director at IDC who studies the future of work, said open offices face even more challenges amid the pandemic. “There’s some major problems and flaws in that from a health and safety perspective,” he said, adding companies are grappling with whether to make changes.

How much space is needed with so many people working remotely is another consideration. According to a survey from Stantec, 53 per cent of its clients expect their real estate needs to remain unchanged, while 42 per cent anticipate some contraction.

One option companies are exploring is to reduce the number of work spaces in the office, but add more distance between them. “They stay the same size,” said Annie Bergeron, a principal in Toronto at design firm Gensler. “They just de-densify a little bit.”

11:00 AM: The staff meeting

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

What exactly will you be doing at the office that you couldn’t do at home? Some companies suggest time in the office should be for collaborative, creative work that benefits from being in physical proximity to others. “We have a lot of great tools we can use in terms of video, but it’s not the same as being in a room with someone and working through a problem,” said Ms. Montefiore at KPMG. Time at home, on the other hand, could be better suited to focused work.

But in-person collaboration is still fraught and impractical. Workers have to keep distance, limiting the number of people who can safely attend an in-person meeting. Given requirements to stay two metres apart, a room at the United Steelworkers’ headquarters that previously held eight people is now limited to just three. Mr. Fleck at Stantec said his office is not exactly buzzing with activity, either. About 20 to 25 people are there on any given day. “We’re still very, very limited in terms of physically distant collaboration,” he said. “Our collaboration right now is fundamentally still virtual.”

Zoom meetings bring their own frustrations. “We’re all stretching to the ends of what Zoom is capable of doing,” said Melissa Nightingale, a founder of Raw Signal Group in Toronto, which offers management and leadership training. Zoom fatigue is a real problem. “If I’m spending my day on Zoom calls, I’m exhausted because my brain is doing so much work to catch those micro-social signals I’m comfortable catching in person, but on a call with a little internet lag is almost impossible,” she said.

There are ways to reduce Zoom fatigue. The Harvard Business Review recommends people avoid multitasking, hide their own face on the video display, and encourage everyone to use plain backgrounds that won’t be distracting. Not every meeting needs to be over video, either.

Ms. Bergeron at Gensler foresees a number of challenges regarding meetings and collaboration in a hybrid working model. Zoom meetings have been an equalizer of sorts. “Everybody is a box on a screen,” she said. But that will change. Those who go to work in-person could be afforded an advantage when it comes to building social and political capital, while their remote working peers risk getting left behind. “We need to reimagine how meetings happen, or a new etiquette that needs to be imagined,” Ms. Bergeron said.

Longer term, Mr. Hardie at IDC said the office will not necessarily be a place where people are actively working all the time. Instead, offices will be geared toward client meetings, socializing with colleagues, and onboarding new employees. “That mix of working from home and being able to come to the office and socialize once in a while is definitely something employees want to do,” he said.

1:00 PM: Your colleague sneezes

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

Internecine office squabbles over the thermostat or dirty dishes in the kitchen risk flaring up at the best of times, and tensions and anxiety will be heightened as people return. A KPMG survey showed 54 per cent of Canadians are afraid to go back given how contagious COVID-19 is, and 77 per cent said their biggest concern is that a colleague might come in sick or asymptomatic.

With so many new guidelines to follow, any number of conflicts or uncomfortable situations could arise. What to do about the guy whose mask never covers his nose? The boss who stands too close? The co-worker who missed the memo on hand-washing?

“It’s so delicate,” said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc. in Vancouver. Employers need to be clear about what is expected of workers in the office, for starters. “It’s not that we’re policing one another, but we all have to be responsible adults, and we all need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.” That could mean politely telling your boss to take a step back or two, and recognizing we’re all learning new behaviours. “Sometimes people just legitimately forget, and need to do something over and over again,” said Ms. Pau.

Wave Financial in Toronto is hoping to avoid any such awkwardness by offering colour-coded wristbands to employees that indicate their level of comfort. A pink bracelet is for someone experiencing a high level of anxiety, and who may need extra space. Yellow indicates a moderate level of caution and someone open to a distanced conversation, for example. (Green bracelets, signalling the greatest level of comfort, will only be available once distancing restrictions are lifted.) “We don’t have to ask questions,” said Ms. Gobrin at Wave, on why the wristbands are worthwhile. “It’s mostly an exercise in letting people choose their comfort levels and not feel judged or criticized.”

PwC Canada implemented what it calls a “social contract” that employees digitally sign before going back. The document lays out the new behavioural guidelines – everything from masks in common areas to washroom etiquette. “If we all act consistently with what we’re signing, we think the level of comfort in the office as employees interact with each other will be really good,” Mr. Dulny said, “and people will be more engaged in work.”

5:00 PM: The new after work drink

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

You will not have much in the way of an office social life, and therein lies the paradox of returning. Our interactions with co-workers are what make office life enjoyable. But for now, workplaces are configured to discourage those very interactions for safety reasons. The amenities that companies have added over the years to enliven the workplace –communal tables, catering, foosball and ping pong, arcade games, beer carts – are off-limits.

Even coffee breaks and lunch are shaping up to be mostly solitary affairs. At Dream, only one person will be allowed to sit at each table in the cafeterias. Some companies are encouraging employees to bring food from home (or pick it up beforehand) and eat at their desks to reduce interactions. A back-to-work guide from Canadian telemedicine company Dialogue even suggests putting microwaves at desks, if the space is available.

So why bother at all? Mr. Schattenkirk at KPMG in Toronto just needed to get out of the house. He shares an open concept house with his wife, who runs her own business from home, and many of his calls need to be confidential. The office affords him that privacy, but he can go an entire day without talking to a co-worker in person. (He might wave from a distance.) It was only last week that he encountered another person in the elevator bay for the first time.

Still, he’s developed new routines, grabbing a tea on the way in and stopping to chat with the barista. “I never had the time to actually talk about the Raptors game because there was someone else in line,” he said. “I find the environment downtown very comfortable. Everything that’s been done has allowed people to go back to some of the basics of life.”

Lauren Tomasich, a partner in the litigation department at Osler in Toronto, is still finding ways to socialize with colleagues. Throughout the summer, she’s gone to the office about once a week, mostly to use boardrooms that have been set up for virtual court appearances. Lately, she’s been in the office for other tasks, too. She goes for coffee and lunch as she normally would (Toronto’s subterranean PATH system is largely empty) and most times at the office, she’s bumped into a colleague and arranged for socially distanced drinks on a patio.

“I actually used to love working from home,” Ms. Tomasich said. “But you really can’t replicate that face-to-face and the spontaneity of interactions.” Donning “quasi-business clothes” and driving in has helped her feel more normal than she has in months, she said.

Socializing and team-building will largely remain online. Zoom cocktails and the like have been popular, but they can be lacking, said Sean Hoff, managing partner at Moniker, a Toronto-based company that organizes corporate retreats. Moniker’s business collapsed when the pandemic hit, so the company pivoted to virtual team-building. Mr. Hoff wanted to offer something unique that would keep people’s attention and encourage interaction. The company now provides five different team-building experiences over Zoom, including an ’80s-themed murder mystery featuring a group of live actors, and a disaster-in-space scenario. Demand has been strong, and Moniker was able to avoid layoffs.

Moniker sees a market for virtual events beyond the pandemic, too, as more companies embrace flexibility and remote work. “With even a partially remote set up,” Mr. Hoff said, “they will need to do a quarterly or monthly event of some sort to bring people together.”

11:00 PM - You can’t sleep

Illustration by Murat Yükselir

Summer has been the easy part. The weather allows us to work outside while at home, and we can meet with colleagues in the park or on a patio, too. “There’s a big tick tock on the amount of time we have left to do this,” Ms. Bergeron said. Offices are only reopening now because case counts have fallen, and a second wave could bring another lockdown. Winter will send us back indoors regardless. Some employees are likely to struggle with loneliness and depression as we head into the winter months.

While it’s important for managers to be empathetic, Ms. Nightingale at Raw Signal said they should not assume the role of therapist with employees. “If you’ve got someone who needs mental health support, your job is not to pretend you’re a mental health professional,” she said. “A lot of leaders get themselves into a bad spot by trying to be.” Instead, leaders should connect employees to the mental health resources and benefits that are available to them.

Many companies should be better positioned to assist employees owing to the experiences of the past few months. “Everyone was experiencing the same thing. We’re unified in this common predicament,” said Zabeen Hirji, executive adviser on the future of work at Deloitte. “Empathy is a lot easier to have.”

With files from Rachelle Younglai, Jeff Gray, Nicolas Van Praet, and Christine Dobby

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