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opinion

Adam Froman, founder and chief executive officer of Delvinia, a research technology company

It’s no surprise that most chief executive officers are working with their management teams to determine what their companies will look like as the pandemic eases. How they will address the change in employee attitude regarding returning to their physical offices, and how will they attract and retain talent.

While many businesses try to figure out how to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19, the technology sector has seen significant growth accelerated by the increased adoption of technology and digital transformation in business. For tech CEOs, this has been a long 16 months, and many have had to manage their own emotional challenges leading their companies through unprecedented growth and the health crisis.

While employees are struggling with mental health challenges because of the pandemic, more than three-quarters of private and public sector leaders are reporting exhaustion, and about 80 per cent say they are working more hours than normal. The emotional struggle has taken its toll on all levels of organizations and has led to one of the untold consequences of the pandemic – the destruction of the corporate culture that CEOs rely on to attract and retain talent and define their organization’s purpose.

While tech companies are leading the economic recovery, combining this with the fact that almost 70 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and more than 43 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated, CEOs face two new challenges: figuring out what the workplace should look like in the months ahead; and when and if to call their employees back to the office. Landlords are pressing the issue by calling on Canadian banks to follow their U.S. counterparts and publicly set a timeline for their return. This has led to a significant amount of stress and uncertainty for most businesses.

Compounding all this uncertainty, the destruction of many corporate cultures has led to a cultural apocalypse because of the pandemic, with significant employee turnover and a loss of connection to the values, purpose and personality that make organizations unique. While most companies that have weathered the lockdowns maintain their ability to serve clients and deliver products in a remote work environment, how do CEOs reconnect with their employees in a way that respects their anxieties, and helps their organizations look to build for the future?

In the tech industry, the world has fundamentally changed. People are moving to locations that require them to remain remote in their jobs – and are pursuing roles that don’t require them to come back to the office. While everyone is craving social interaction and the desire to return to their normal lives, the cultural apocalypse businesses are facing cannot be overlooked as they plan the reopening of their work spaces.

Rising from this cultural apocalypse is a new reality that rebuilding culture will be related to an organization’s ability to show employees that the company empathizes with their concerns and is flexible when it comes to helping teammates retain their new-found work-from-home work/life balance.

Our company interviewed senior managers between July 7 and 13. We encouraged open-ended discussion covering three key areas:

  • How much are team members talking about the return to the office and what questions are they asking?
  • How do they – and their team members – feel about going back?
  • What are the types of situations where their team and the business would benefit from in-person collaboration?

Through these discussions with Delvinia senior managers, we found consensus that focused work activities lend themselves well to working from home, with 85 per cent of senior managers seeing this as a key benefit. The combination of eliminating commuting time and having more flexibility to manage personal lives and workload has also been a bonus that our teams want to keep.

However, 92 per cent of our leaders feel their teams have missed in-person collaboration for activities like training, problem solving, quick check-ins, strategic planning, whiteboarding, kick-offs for complex projects and team building.

While all our senior managers believe they’ve been able to keep up with the demands of the business during the lockdowns, 78 per cent are finding it harder to innovate and plan for growth while working remotely.

These discussions have led to our team’s understanding that returning to an office is not about going back to the way the business ran before the pandemic. Instead, our teams are completely rethinking the role of the office in the context of the business and rebuilding the company culture.

Words like “flexibility” and “hybrid models” are becoming common in most return-to-office discussions, along with an understanding that coming back will be focused on collaborating to drive the business forward. Even Canadian banks are trying not to be overly prescriptive or rigid.

While the past 16 months has taught many CEOs is their companies can operate remotely, it has also shown us that building culture, innovating and preparing for growth needs the foundation that only face-to-face collaboration can provide.

This means the role of an office is becoming more strategic than necessary.

In the coming months, CEOs must let go of mandates and uncertainty to inspire their staff to reconnect with their colleagues and the innovative, cultural heart of their organization.

The new cultural reality will be based upon a clear set of values and thoughtful dialogue to help provide our teams with a compelling new reason and purpose to come back to the office.

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