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Intuit's new Toronto office space at 8 Spadina Ave. has been designed with employee feedback to make a welcoming, collaborative pace for workers.

To reverse the popular working-from-home trend resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across the country have been coming up with ways to make going to the office as appealing as the comforts of home.

A recent report, Economic Impacts of Commercial Real Estate in Canada (2022 Edition), prepared for NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, by Toronto-based real estate services company Altus Group, looked at pandemic-related decline in employee occupancy.

According to the study, released in December, compared with prepandemic numbers, weekly in-office attendance is down to between 25 per cent and 35 per cent, though numbers on weekend-adjacent days (Monday, Friday) fall lower.

For the past two years, business-software maker Intuit Canada has been trying to work out how to get employees back, as it planned a move from Mississauga to a new office in downtown Toronto.

Almost 200 employees have been hired by the company since lockdowns began in 2020, working remotely the whole time, so many had never met their colleagues in person, says David Marquis, Intuit’s vice-president and Canada country manager.

“We didn’t want to have an approach where we say, ‘you have to come into the office,’ especially when they’ve been working from home for so long. The challenge is to provide the right attractions to pull employees back,” he says.

Creative spaces at Intuit's new Toronto office maximize views of the city.Wallace Immen wallace immen Wallace Immen

While the plan to move to four floors of the newly opened office tower at 8 Spadina Ave. was in the works before COVID-19, the pandemic was a reality through the entire design process, says Chris Kallinis, Intuit’s head of finance who became the Toronto site planning leader.

“The Mississauga office was not purpose built; it was leased when the company only had 20 employees and it wasn’t really designed with employees in mind,” Mr. Kallinis says.

Employee feedback on every aspect of the transition was key – “we have brought employees on every step of the journey,” he says.

“I was moved out of my finance function, and we created councils from each work group. We had them come to the site and gathered their feedback on what they want to see and how they want it done.”

You can be an okay company and work from home, but if you want to be a great company with the best culture, you need to give people flexibility and encouragement to work together.

David Marquis, vice-president and Canada country manager at Intuit

In the Mississauga office, prototypes of workstations were built for employees to try out. The clear preference was for uncluttered, adjustable-height desks with all the plug-ins needed for a wide range of technology. Cords and cables are compatible with Apple or PC and have wireless charging stations, so the only thing employees need to bring from home is a laptop and mouse.

Feedback also steered the office layout. For instance, a desk facing a wall that didn’t provide enough privacy led to placing it sideways instead. There are no assigned seats, but departments work in zones known as neighbourhoods, with team rooms dedicated for impromptu meetings.

There are also coffee and snack bars on each floor and recreation areas with diversions such as pool, shuffleboard, air hockey, hoops and foosball to inspire interdepartmental collaboration.

The larger meeting rooms have a jam board (a digital interactive board similar to a white board) that can be written on and seen on Zoom, another feature requested in employee feedback, Mr. Kallinis says. “Because in a hybrid environment, if you’re joining a meeting with a bunch of people in the office, those who are remote can feel left out.”

A recurring theme in the employee feedback is that office features recognize the company’s culturally diverse staff. For example, “one of the things that came up loud and clear is recognition of Indigenous heritage and we had employees say they wanted to name meeting spaces to honour a certain clan or tribe and important elders. We worked with Indigenous consultants to create artwork and names for offices on an entire floor,” Mr. Kallinis says.

The Toronto office has coffee and snack bars on each floor and recreation areas with diversions such as pool, air hockey, and foosball to inspire interdepartmental collaboration.

There is also a space designed for prayers by Muslim employees that includes a foot-washing station and a separate area for women.

Employees who had worked at the former office also wanted a sense of continuity in the new location. A staff favourite to include was a life-size sculpture of a moose, one of more than 300 created as part of Toronto’s Moose in the City public art display in 2000.

Since the best place to display it was on a staff patio on the 19th floor and it didn’t fit in the elevator, a crane was needed to lift it from Spadina Avenue, Mr. Marquis says.

It became a team-building event, with an employee contest and video documenting the hoist.

Feedback has continued since the company made its move in August. Adjustments to the size of work zones and conference rooms can be made because many of the internal walls can be shifted to make spaces larger or smaller, Mr. Marquis says.

“We realized utilization is not going to be 100 per cent,” he explained and so, there are fewer desks than employees.

“We can adjust,” he adds. “We intend to continue to grow and there is space to add more desks and adapt.”

To familiarize the teams to the new location and colleagues, Intuit scheduled guided tours of the space as well as the King West neighbourhood and downtown Toronto. Get-acquainted events included a Blue Jays game at the nearby Rogers Centre.

Intuit is still working on a hybrid basis, encouraging people to come to the office two to three days a week.

“You can be an okay company and work from home, but if you want to be a great company with the best culture, you need to give people flexibility and encouragement to work together,” Mr. Marquis says. “The feedback has been incredible. We’re finding that as people come into this office, they’re loving it.”