May 17, 2022

Home Design Consultant

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Will you be forced back to the office this spring?

Plans for Thomson Reuters’ new downtown headquarters were going swimmingly at the end of 2019.

The old Southam Press Building in the Entertainment District was being doubled in height, adding five floors on top of the five that existed. The media conglomerate had recently approved the interior designs for its brand-new workplace when March 2020 arrived.

“Everything changed when the pandemic hit,” said Shawn Malhotra, head of engineering at Thomson Reuters in Toronto.

As the months wore on, with most of its workers now signing in at home, it became clear that the plans for the new building would no longer work.

Hybrid work was in the future for Thomson Reuters’ staff, said Malhotra, and, in a way, the pandemic shutdown had happened at an opportune time. It wasn’t too late to design a new floor plan based on the changing world around them, and what workers were now saying they hoped to see in the reimagined office.

“We heard loud and clear that flexibility is important,” he said. “People need their job to fit their life, and not the other way around.”

Based on feedback from its employees, the company changed its well-laid plans.

In the new layout by design firm Perkins+Will, square footage dedicated to collaborative space has more than doubled, from 15 per cent of the original plan to almost half.

And in perhaps a more telling move, only around a third of office space will now be dedicated to individual workspaces, down from 70 per cent in the original plan.

The final fifth of the new workplace “campus” will be community space, such as food areas and a terrace.

Of course, it’s impossible to plan for a reality that hasn’t hit yet.

So Thomson Reuters has hit pause on four floors of the 10-storey building, and plans to treat the other floors as a pilot project, using employee feedback in the months after the building opens to inform their design.

“We all think we have a good plan,” said Malhotra. “But we also know we’re in uncharted territory.”

As Ontario and other provinces begin further lifting COVID-19 restrictions, Thomson Reuters won’t be the only company to once again open its doors to employees, some of whom haven’t been to an office in two years, and many of whom don’t want to go back at all.

Canada’s white-collar workers have undergone a transformative, indelible shift during the pandemic, and their employers are learning that the old ways won’t fly anymore.

In October 2021, more than one-fifth of working Canadians were clocking in full time from home, and almost another fifth were working from home some of the time, according to Statistics Canada.

That’s a huge increase from pre-pandemic days, when only one in 20 employees worked most of their hours from home.

A recent report by Randstad Sourceright found that many employers now expect their workers will be getting the job done remotely at least part of the time, with two-thirds of employers surveyed having already asked some employees to work in person at least some of the time.

Sheila Botting, head of professional services in the Americas for Avison Young, said workplaces were already becoming increasingly digital and hybrid before 2020. But like the swift uptick in e-commerce, the shift was accelerated by the pandemic.

“Everybody realized that … we didn’t need to be tied to our desks,” Botting said, adding it’s clear workers won’t be returning en masse to their cubicles after two years of working remotely.

Flexibility will be key as employers redefine the role of the office, she said.

“The bottom line is that one size does not fit all.”

While there are many benefits to working from the office — social interaction, fewer dreaded Zoom meetings, easier collaboration — there are major downsides that employees are reluctant to shoulder again.

One of those is the commute.

In 2016, the most recent data available, almost one in five Toronto workers travelled at least 25 kilometres to work, according to Statistics Canada.

Among employees in the Toronto census metropolitan area, 11 per cent of car commuters spent at least an hour travelling to work, while those coming from farther away often spent more than an hour.

So it comes as no surprise that after just over a year of remote or hybrid work, 77 per cent of Canadians wanted to keep some flexibility, a May 2021 survey by KPMG Canada found.

But they’re also not sure their employer knows what true flexibility means. Many expressed concerns that their bosses weren’t equipped to manage a hybrid workplace, or that they didn’t fully understand the implications for their jobs of a hybrid model.

A commuter makes her way along the halls of Union Station on March 1, during what has typically been the morning rush hour. A photo on the wall behind her depicts the station's once-bustling hallways.

Hybrid and remote work consultant Nola Simon said “hybrid” and “flexible” often mean different things to employers and their employees.

An employee might want the freedom to choose when to come into the office, for example, while their employer might want them to come in on specific days.

Leaving those decisions to individual managers could open the door to unfairness and discord among workers, Simon said. That’s why she recommends having flexible options built into hybrid workplace policies and reviewing them as time goes on.

“It’s an experiment,” she said.

Many employers will have to reckon with workers who have become attached to fully remote work. Some have moved in search of more affordable housing, and some may have even moved to another province, said Simon. Employees with disabilities, chronic illnesses or children may have found it significantly easier to work from home, she said.

But employers shouldn’t think of remote or hybrid work as a perk just for employees, said Simon; the ability to hire remotely gives employers access to more talent.

“When you’re working remotely, and you’re hiring remotely, you can choose the talent from anywhere in the world,” she said.

Veronica Frisch, executive vice-president and head of Randstad Sourceright Canada, said with many sectors looking to hire in a tough labour market, flexible or fully remote work may be a draw for workers.

“Employers must walk a tightrope, balancing the new demands of talent alongside long-established company practices and culture,” Frisch said in an email.

Of course, there are those who want to return to the office, either full or part time, for a variety of reasons.

Some value having a separation between their work and home lives, or the social nature of the workplace, or in-person collaboration.

But it’s important that employers make an effort to prevent fully remote employees from being left out of the workplace dynamic, Simon said.

Brian Rosen, president and CEO of commercial real estate and investment management firm Colliers Canada, said as the pandemic wore on, surveys of the firm’s tenants found that employers became increasingly accepting of their hybrid futures.

Space planning will be a big challenge for companies, said Rosen, and they will have to do some complicated math to figure out what they need not just now, but in the future.

Hybrid doesn’t always mean less space, he said — it could mean a redesigned use of the current space instead.

Jonathan Sabine, co-founder of design firm MSDS Studio, said companies are preparing for an uncertain future by creating flexible space.

For many workers, individual offices will be a thing of the past — people will have to get used to sharing workspaces, he said, whether that means more collaborative meeting rooms or book-ahead desks, known as “hotelling.”

During the first few months of the pandemic, Sabine’s firm partnered with furniture company Three H to create a flexible table system designed with the post-pandemic office in mind — tables can be attached to one another in a variety of configurations, and components can be attached for everything from briefcases to video conferencing technology.

Integrated tech, along with multi-use furniture and flexible space, will be key to a successful hybrid workplace, Sabine said, as the office becomes more informal, a sort of social hub or amenity rather than a workplace.

“The office is officially a perk.”

While some might do away with office space altogether, and others might try to recreate pre-pandemic times, most will be somewhere in the middle — “it’s not going to be a binary outcome,” said Rosen.

Certain employees will likely be called into the office more, Rosen noted, depending on how collaborative their work requirements are.

Hybrid will be an especially hot topic in 2022, he said, as companies learn what does and doesn’t work for them and their employees.

“I don’t think we’re out of the experiment phase,” he said.

While Thomson Reuters employees will begin the transition to hybrid work in April at their current offices, the new building isn’t expected to open until mid-2022.

And while it’s not yet clear just how many of those workers will be on site at least part of the time or happily working from home, “there’s a lot of excitement,” said Malhotra.

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