TORONTO — Shaking hands. Drinking coffee with colleagues. Wining and dining a client. Social niceties once taken for granted seem increasingly complicated as thousands of Canadian workers return to the office this spring, many for the first time in two years.
Along with anxiety about commuting times and corporate vaccination policies come questions over what professional behaviour looks like in 2022.
Travis O’Rourke, president of recruitment firm Hays Canada, says employers will need to focus on making the return a positive experience, not a dreaded one, and get in front of any potential issues that could make employees uncomfortable.
"The back-to-office culture needs to be on the top of every manager's list or they will find their employees just simply won’t want to return," O’Rourke said in an interview.
He also says that workplace culture will need to adapt to employees' changing needs and be reflective of how society has evolved over the last two years.
Most Canadians say they don’t want to return to the office full time. According to a recent Amazon business survey, half of Canadian office workers say they would prefer to work mostly or completely remotely. The report also found that 43 per cent of Canadians would likely look for a new job if their bosses made them return to the office full time.
Signs of downtown life are nonetheless resuming. Toronto's financial core is getting busier since the major banks have begun calling employees back. Manulife Financial Corp. allowed staff back on a voluntary basis starting this week.
In other parts of the country, such as Alberta — where almost all COVID restrictions were lifted earlier this month — workers are also returning to downtown offices. According to commercial real estate firm Avison Young, which tracks daily activity estimates from representative office occupiers in North American cities, foot traffic in downtown Edmonton has been rising week over week since the start of the year. Foot traffic is also up in Calgary, at its highest level in 2022 thus far as of the week ending March 13, according to Avison Young.
Will we feel comfortable around each other – shaking hands, sitting close, speaking without masks?
Hays Canada’s O’Rourke believes some employees will be nervous around their colleagues at the start, because they’ll be trying to follow the workplace health protocols, from masking to spacing to sanitizing, for their own safety while trying to navigate their team’s comfort level. But that should be short-lived.
"We find that once an employee gets comfortable with the requirements, then it starts to feel a lot like it used to," he said. "The other big driver is reading your colleagues – once you get a feel for where everyone on your team stands, it is a lot easier to interact."
For immunocompromised workers, O’Rourke sees accommodations and considerations being made by team leaders, such as masking in close quarters if necessary, and other workers doing their best to respect and protect their colleagues.
What about working lunches, after-work drinks and coffee meet-ups for networking?
O’Rourke definitely sees a resumption of social activities that were very much a part of the in-office experience pre-pandemic.
"People are craving it," he said. "The thought of doing one more remote 'party' or social event is not an enticing one."
He expects to see a lot of employers leveraging these activities and outings as a means of getting people back to show them what they are missing by working from home.
What about flexibility, especially for parents?
O’Rourke says that businesses are working to try to support a desire for more flexibility. Some of these features include flexible hours to allow for pickups or drop-offs from school or daycare, personal days to accommodate family members' schedules and mental health resources to help employees who are going through a tough time outside of work. Many companies are also looking at ways to subsidize daycare or even have child care on-site, he adds.
"In the war for talent, companies are using whatever tools they can afford," he said.
Checking in matters, he said, and it shouldn't be a one-time conversation.
"Open and honest communication and dialogue is the key," he said. "If your employees are not OK, you have a choice to find out about it on your own time or to find out about it in an exit interview."
What about the design of the office itself?
Many offices have spaced out desks, added barriers, upgraded doors and other items to be touchless, etc., but that may not be enough, says Gale Moutrey, vice-president of innovation for Steelcase. Steelcase is an office design solutions company that has collaborated with contract furniture and service provider POI Business Interiors to open WorkBetterLab in Toronto, a pop-up prototype workplace giving people an opportunity to see what a hybrid-friendly office could look like.
"We’re envisioning the office of the future as a neighbourhood that creates the same energy and connection people feel sitting in a sidewalk café or the same level of flow they experience in their local library," he said in an interview.
This concept includes a variety of interconnected space types that support a mixture of uses – private spots for productivity, places to collaborate with colleagues in-person or remotely, spaces to socialize. One of the goals with this approach is to create equitable experiences and spaces that accommodate those working from home and in-person.
"Today’s office must 'earn' the commute of workers," Moutrey said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2022.
Adena Ali, The Canadian Press