There’s a showdown taking place inside many Canadian organizations.
Fresh from their two-plus year remote work experiment, employees have settled into a new way of working and are broadly opposed to returning to the office. Employers, meanwhile, are concerned with maintaining culture, cohesion and continuity in a remote environment and are looking to coax their workers back to a centralized location.
According to a recent survey of business leaders conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, 57 per cent expressed concern that remote work would change their corporate culture, and 51 per cent feared it would dilute it.
“There is a concern about what happens to the culture of an organization if people aren’t back – at least in some significant way, if not five days a week – at the office,” says Susan Black, the president and chief executive officer of the Conference Board of Canada. “The challenges they cited were a decrease in collaboration, a slowdown in their ability to train people and build skills, and 61 per cent said there would be a decrease in the quality of internal relationships.”
In any other job market, according to Dr. Black, employers would simply mandate a full return to the office, but with record-low unemployment, she says workers are firmly in the driver’s seat.
“We’re seeing a lot of research now that’s saying the vast majority of employees want to keep some element of flexibility, and in a tight labour market, they have the ability to make that a condition of employment,” she says. “That’s presenting, for some employers, real challenges.”
Here are four ways employers are tackling this challenge and getting their staff excited about returning to the office – at least some of the time.
1. Be explicit about what needs to be done in person
As workplaces reopened, the first post-lockdown in-person work experiences didn’t inspire enthusiasm and may be partially to blame for the ongoing tension between workers and employers, according to Dr. Black.
“It is very demoralizing to go back in there and not see your colleagues or be in a largely empty office, and it is irritating to do things that you could be doing perfectly well at home,” she says. “That is why it’s incumbent on employers to consider the nature of the task; why are you bringing them back in? What are they going to do that they could do better when they are physically together?”
According to Dr. Black, most employees agree that certain tasks – like collaboration, training and team building – aren’t as effective in a remote setting. She says employees are generally content to return to the office when given a clear explanation of why they can’t accomplish the same task at home.
As leaders consider why they need staff to be in the office on certain days or for specific events, it’s important to communicate that rationale to staff rather than leaving them guessing.
According to PwC’s joint global leader of people and organization, Bhushan Sethi, being transparent, empathetic and communicative can put more value on workplace relationships and inspire workers to show up in person more often.
“What I’m advising clients to do, and what I’m seeing the best firms doing, is over-index on the communications,” he says. “Some leaders haven’t been as transparent in this way, so it’s a good way to flex new muscles.”
3. Be accommodating
While many prefer the work-from-home lifestyle, there are also segments of the working population that cannot return to the office for more practical reasons. According to Mr. Sethi, employers need to be willing to accommodate staff who face unique circumstances to build trust across the organization.
“If you want to be an inclusive employer and not move backward on your DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] goals you need to have accommodations for people who say, ‘I’m still not comfortable,’ or ‘I’m having a difficult mental health week’ or ‘I’m having caregiver issues because my partner has long-COVID,’” he says. “Everyone talks about being an inclusive leader in a hybrid environment in academic terms, but this is how you really bring that to life.”
4. Provide a workspace that’s better than the one at home
Certain perks like free lunches and daycare services can be a huge draw when luring workers back to the office. So can offering a workspace that is more aesthetically pleasing, welcoming and comfortable than the one they have at home.
“The idea is to create environments that allow people to accomplish things in a way that they can’t at home, so they want to come and be with their teams, and they want to be in a beautiful environment that supports their well-being,” says Nina Abdelmessih, the chief of operations and external relations for BCG Canada.
Since moving into downtown Toronto’s new CIBC Square complex, Ms. Abdelmessih says in-person attendance at BCG Canada has returned to near pre-pandemic levels across all employee types and levels of seniority. She adds that the new workspace focuses on four key areas: culture, collaboration, technology and employee well-being.
Ms. Abdelmessih believes each is key to creating a post-pandemic workspace that inspires staff to choose in-person over remote work more often. “I don’t think the office is dead,” she says. “It’s just being reimagined.”