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opinion

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year and most non-essential businesses sent their employees home, many business leaders, especially in technology-intensive industries, questioned whether they would require offices in the future. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke made one of the most pronounced statements on the subject, stating “office-centricity is over” and that his company would be “digital by default.” Mr. Lutke was not alone. Global tech giants such as Twitter, Square and Facebook made similar decisions. Many startups and companies scaling up became fast followers.

The short-term data likely supported these bold decisions. It’s no surprise productivity spiked with employees not having to commute to the office or go to conferences and customer sites. Many were also working more hours with lockdowns rendering most of their non-work activities impossible and the fears of what impact they would have on the economy and their company.

Meetings also became utilitarian, given their digital nature, allowing employees more time to focus on tasks. Recruiters were no longer tied to finding team members in locations where their company had offices or were willing to relocate to.

As we see the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel in Canada, there may be some seller’s remorse for companies who divested real estate holdings or got out of leases to financially optimize a work-from-home future.

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Team leaders have lamented the challenge of onboarding new employees and building team cohesiveness remotely. Many are also seeing increased employee churn among their strategic team members as global competitors believe they can pass on savings from reduced office expenses and currency arbitrage to lure such talent.

There are also justifiable questions whether the incremental uptick in productivity can be sustained. Most concerning is whether innovation has been stifled as digital platforms cannot replicate collaborative environments.

Many employees are now yearning to get back to the office, albeit in a hybrid fashion. Some are also expressing concern about not being able to see customers in person to get feedback on new products or to build lasting sales relationships.

So much of the public discourse around the future of work has been around what the office will look like or whether it will exist at all. The reality is there likely won’t be a one-size-fits all approach for most companies. The office of old is likely dead but so too will be the makeshift, work-from-home pandemic approach. What is certain is that the future of the organization, its structure, policies and resulting culture, is going to have to evolve to achieve companies’ strategic objectives within their emerging hybrid realities.

A key component of leadership going forward will be considering how to stimulate innovation with a dispersed workforce. One place to start would be expanding the concept of “hackathons” – a process often employed by software engineers – by which groups of personnel or whole teams come together, in person or remotely, and log off their day job to pursue challenges they identify or those deemed important by the company. Hackathons can be beneficial, beyond R+D teams, to help various business functions achieve efficiencies and other strategic corporate objectives.

To reap the benefits of broadening their candidate base for recruitment, companies are going to have to invest and place an emphasis on employee onboarding and retention or they risk serious disruptions to their operations.

They may also want to consider clustering new employees regionally, regardless of any plans to open a physical office in that specific region. A structural investment that will likely define success in a clustered model is middle management. While such positions have been hollowed out in the past generation in traditional industries, they will become ever more important in a hybrid work environment. They provide mentorship and guidance on day-to-day challenges and build team cohesiveness, which is especially important for team members early in their career journey.

There will also have to be a greater risk assessment of which positions are required to be in-office positions. The pandemic has seen an uptick in the number of costly and disruptive cybersecurity breaches. Many of the threat vectors have been created as a result of the blurring of lines between home and work with insecure networks or applications and employees accessing critical intellectual property or data on personal devices. Technology solutions alone cannot alleviate these risks. They will have to be anticipated and mitigated with policies and investments in training and offices for positions handling sensitive materials.

Teams will also require thoughtful policies or have active management as to when in-person activities are essential, can be conducted remotely, or be hybrid in nature. Hybrid engagements will require better curation and facilitation. This has long been a complaint of remote employees, well before the pandemic, who are regularly beamed into meetings rooms but feel, or are, disconnected from the nuances in the discussion and in making decisions.

Ultimately, the question of whether to go back to the office of old or keep the remote approach is a false dichotomy. The hybrid approach is business’s new reality, and each company will have to strike its own balance. This was likely an inevitable outcome that was accelerated by the pandemic.

The future of companies will be defined by more than their office footprint in 2022 and beyond. It will be their strategy, leadership and investments in their people, policies and procedures that will define their culture, success and failures for the years to come.

Neil Desai is an executive with Canadian cybersecurity firm, Magnet Forensics. He also serves as a senior fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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