Chairman's Desk

Our eventual return to the office will take new policies — and a new mindset

As the pandemic marches inevitably on toward its second summer of lockdowns and physical distancing, it can be easy to lose notice of just how much our lives have changed.

This is especially true, I think, for those of us who have grown accustomed to working from home and to the reliable, quiet drift of each day into the next that comes with it.

We may not miss the jetsam of our former lives — the habits and activities we were able to gladly throw overboard in the face of COVID-19. But the flotsam of this pandemic, the chaos and destruction it has caused, the upheaval of entire neighbourhoods, is a reality we can’t escape.

Nowhere is this wreckage more pronounced than in the ghost town of Toronto’s PATH system.

These days, a stroll through the PATH is a stark reminder that the office as we knew it has been turned entirely upside down. For many companies, this pandemic has been a forced foray into the world of working from home, or as some wags prefer: live at work.

For the most part, employees seem to be content with the changes to their routine. In fact, a recent poll of Canadians suggests that one in three would look for a new job if asked to return to the office full-time. That is a remarkable figure, especially given the precarity and general insecurity many are still feeling about their lives, their future and their work.

What’s more, it speaks to the reality that is dawning on the other end of this pandemic. Just as they had to adapt last year, employers need to prepare for a return to work that is responsive to all that has changed — and with it the new expectations of their employees.

I don’t belong to the category of those who think we will never return to the office. Quite the opposite. In my view, people will return to the office, in part, because they miss their old lives. But also because business imperatives will push us back.

Fundamentally, there are three crucial things that are lost without the chance to work together in the same space.

First, the element of companionship and camaraderie that solidifies our working relationships. Part of what’s missing in a virtual workplace is the natural ebb and flow of professional and personal time. In the office, we go from coffee to meetings to lunch and then back to work, all the while establishing enriching personal bonds.

Second, we lose the opportunity for collaboration and collision to organically improve the work we do. No chance for a conversation overheard or some coincidental synergy to make all the difference to a project. Something that given the tightness and closeness of our country, matters more to us than most.

Finally, without a return to the office, we lose much of the benefit of mentorship — which just cannot have the same impact in remote work. This is especially a loss for younger professionals, who won’t have the opportunity for crucial advancement and learning from their colleagues.

There, three quick reasons why the office is not dead — yet. But I also recognize that change is necessary. The best answer? Most likely a hybrid model, where solitary work that can be done with minimal collaboration is done in a new way, while work that requires collaboration is conducted (at least more often) in a shared space.

And, of course, we must recognize that for all the changes we can expect to our physical office experience, the policies that underpin our work life will need to change too.

Many companies will be more flexible about work schedules. Some will reconfigure how workload is allocated. Our own firm has implemented a policy of unlimited vacation, recognizing that strict allotments of vacation time are out of sync with the reality of how we now work and live our lives.

Whatever the specific solutions, the important thing is for business leaders to recognize the tide of change that’s taken place, and adapt accordingly.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 11, 2021.

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