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Erin Bury, co-founder and chief executive officer of Willful, and Kevin Oulds, co-founder and head of research and innovation, in their Toronto office.DELLA ROLLINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Until COVID-19 forced Willful to shutter its downtown Toronto headquarters and send employees home, the four-year old startup had embraced a corporate culture defined in large part by the parameters of a physical office.

But when husband-and-wife co-founders Kevin Oulds and Erin Bury re-opened Willful’s office in late July, they knew there was no going back to their pre-COVID ways.

“The reality is we don’t have any need to be in the office to do our jobs, but our team continues to highlight that they want some in-person gathering,” says Ms. Bury, whose company enables the online creation of lawyer-approved wills and power-of-attorney documents. “Absolutely nobody has said, however, that they’d love to go back into the office full-time.”

As big companies such as Facebook, Ford Motor Co., and CIBC shift long-term to fully remote or hybrid telework-onsite models, small businesses across the country are similarly putting their post-COVID workplace strategies into action.

Many are learning there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how their teams will work today and post-COVID-19. With no human resource or workplace safety department to help them navigate the path toward a post-pandemic future, some are finding a few unexpected challenges and benefits as they embrace new workplace models.

Should we stay or should we go?

On its website, New York-based workspace provider WeWork presents case studies of big companies that have bought flexible office passes for thousands of employees or by leasing multiple satellite offices close to workers’ homes. While it might make sense for a small business to switch to a flexible workspace after the pandemic or to have no physical office at all, some have chosen to hang on to their current real estate.

That’s the case with Integris Pension Management Corp., a Toronto-based company that introduced personal pension plans in 2013 and provides fiduciary and other support services for financial institutions that offer these plans. While it switched to mostly remote operations and will likely continue with a flexible model that allows staff to work from home, Integris has no plans to relinquish its spacious head office in Toronto’s west end.

“Nobody likes to pay for real estate that’s not being utilized but we’re in a situation where our company’s footprint across the country is growing,” says Jean-Pierre Laporte, chief executive officer and founder of Integris. “When we add more staff to keep up with the growth of the company, we need to have a place for them to work. Or if a group of financial advisers wants to co-locate in our premises, we want to have that space available for them.”

Like Integris, Willful is keeping its downtown office – not so much as a workspace but to use as centre for gathering, says Ms. Bury. At about 1,600 square feet it’s not large, and with 15 employees and still growing, the company already found the space was a tight squeeze.

“I’ve thought about how much we would save per month if we got rid of it, but the majority of the team has said they would like to use it once a week,” Ms. Bury. “The risk is, you cut down on costs but you’re sacrificing culture and more importantly cross-collaboration. For our employees to be able to go into a room to whiteboard something, there’s a lot of value there.”

Toronto-based Headspace Marketing Inc. isn’t giving up its physical office either, although the company moved recently to a space it shares with another small business. Headspace CEO Eric Blais says at least one employee needs a workspace outside their home but now that clients are no longer asking for office tours as a pre-requisite to doing business, he doesn’t have to lease a splashy space to impress.

“Because of COVID, clients don’t want to visit us, and they’ve realized they don’t need to meet with us in person to hire us,” says Mr. Blais, whose agency serves companies that want to localize their marketing messages to Quebec audiences. “So, the whole idea of showcasing your workspace is no longer necessary.”

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Ms. Bury and Mr. Oulds plan to keep Willful's 1,600-square-foot Toronto office as a centre for gatherings, even though they don't expect to go back to having all their employees permanently work out of the office as was the case before the pandemic.DELLA ROLLINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Data security: It’s not about location, location, location

Whether a small business is in a physical office space, working remotely or through a combination of the two, cybersecurity should be top of mind, says Greg Gunn, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver-based Commit, a completely remote company that provides a networking platform for engineers.

“I don’t think it’s any different in terms of the level that you need to be paying attention to cybersecurity,” he says. “Any company needs to have measures in place to make sure their data is secure.”

Business owners who think having employees working from home puts them at higher risk of data breaches are often surprised to learn that remote companies can be safer, says Mr. Gunn. That’s because in physical offices employees often share screens and copy files onto USB sticks or flash drives. In certain cases, an employee might even bring home a hard drive and copy it.

Or, as Ms. Bury experienced in a previous workplace, intruders can break into an office and steal the company’s computers.

“We were robbed at an agency I ran,” she recalls. “People weren’t bringing their work computers home and they got stolen.”

Building culture in the post-COVID workplace

Most big companies have established corporate cultures based on organizational values and have the resources to promote their collective identities. By comparison, small businesses tend to define their cultures around the values and character of their founders.

So how does a company build culture if leaders and employees continue to work apart?

Gunn says it’s easier to build an authentic, long-lasting workplace culture in a remote environment. Instead of relying on physical things or experiences – such as state-of-the-art buildings or company-paid social events – to foster team spirit, remote workplaces create strong cultures from the process of building something together.

“It’s not about spending money on fancy offices with kombucha taps,” says Mr. Gunn, who was also a former executive at social media platform provider Hootsuite. “Corporate culture is about the human beings who work in your company and how they interact on a day-to-day basis.”

Technology will continue to play a critical role in these day-to-day interactions, says Mr. Blais at Headspace Marketing. After 17 years of growing his company with a core group of four employees and a network of about two dozen freelance creatives, Mr. Blais says he has gotten to know his team better over the past 18 months, thanks to videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom and Google Meet.

“When you’re meeting people through these platforms, you know that they’re in a cottage or in a one-bedroom condo in the city,” he says. “I can see that someone has gotten a new puppy, or I might see their boyfriend or girlfriend coming into the kitchen during our call.”

Whether they choose to stay in the office or work from home completely or just some of the time, businesses will perform best in their post-COVID workplaces if they transform their management culture from one that watches the clock to one that measures employee performance based on outcomes, says Mr. Laporte at Integris.

“So long as the work gets done and the numbers are flowing through, I’m not going to sit here and worry if my staff are in front of their computer all day or not,” he says. “That’s why you hire good people in the first place.”

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