COVID-19 changed office work. Here's what the 'next normal' looks like as people return

There are signs that more people will be heading into dedicated work spaces across Canada this fall, though office occupancy remains far below its pre-pandemic levels.

Pandemic upended entrenched routines and things won't go back to the way they were, experts say

An exterior view of Deloitte Canada's new facility in Vancouver is seen Friday. Local employees have moved into the building at a time when the company has shifted toward the 'next normal' of its workplace — namely having its people work under hybrid arrangements. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Deloitte Canada would have moved into a newly opened Vancouver office sooner, if it wasn't for the pandemic.

But the delay gave the company some time to consider how that space should be used.

"We were able to really think about this 'next normal,'" said Jayana Darras, the company's culture and people leader, which at Deloitte involves supporting hybrid working arrangements.

For now, about one-fifth of Deloitte's regional workforce of 1,500 people is in the building on a typical workday.

Deloitte Canada's local staff moved into the Deloitte Summit tower in Vancouver in June, a process that the company's culture and people leader says was delayed by the pandemic. But the delay gave the company time to think about how it wanted to use the space there. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"We're hitting about 275, 300 people [on a given day]," Darras said, noting fewer people choose to come in on Mondays and Fridays.

She predicts that number to rise this fall, but also doesn't expect Deloitte to mandate a return.

The pandemic upended long-entrenched office routines, prompting organizations to rethink how work can be done and embrace more flexible arrangements.

More people are being encouraged to physically return to work this fall, but it doesn't appear the work world will revert to its pre-pandemic state. 

WATCH | Demand for flexibility, even in returning to the office:  

Workers want flexibility with return-to-office plans

2 years ago
Duration 5:13
With pandemic restrictions easing across Canada, companies are preparing to welcome employees back into the office. But many are pushing back and asking for flexible work arrangements, while others are looking forward to going into the office again.

"Work from home is clearly here to stay," Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor, who has been studying the impact of the widening adoption of more flexible work, said via email.

Tentative start of a climb?

Colliers Canada manages more than 60 million square feet of commercial real estate across the country — with office space accounting for more than half of that footprint.

Amy Vuong, vice-president of strategy of real estate management services for Colliers Canada, says many companies began seeing people return to the office on a voluntary basis during the spring — and her organization is hearing that some companies are now making that in-the-office presence mandatory. (Submitted by Amy Vuong)

Amy Vuong, vice-president of strategy of real estate management services for Colliers Canada, said the firm has conducted regular surveys among its tenants throughout the pandemic.

This year, between spring and fall, Vuong said Colliers had seen "a four per cent increase in the number of companies that said they were moving to full-time" occupancy in the office — with staff going in five days a week — with that number moving from 33 to 37 per cent. 

That may seem like a tentative gain, but Vuong said it may be indicative of a larger trend.

"A lot of companies rolled out their [return-to-office] policies on a voluntary basis this spring," said Vuong.

"We're hearing that companies are potentially looking at removing that voluntary option as we go into the fall."

Cities and commuters

In Toronto, a lot of office desks are still going unused nearly 30 months into the COVID-19 era.

The Strategic Regional Research Alliance (SRRA), an independent research group, has been keeping tabs on the level of office occupancy in Canada's most-populous city. 

The Strategic Regional Research Alliance estimates the percentage of people coming into the office in Toronto is, as of last month, less than 30 per cent of its pre-COVID equivalent. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It estimates the proportion of people heading into these spaces — as of its most-recent snapshot from mid-August — is still less than 30 per cent of its pre-pandemic equivalent.

SRRA co-founder Iain Dobson expects that employers will want to see more people in the office this fall, if that's possible to achieve.

"We have had so many false starts," Dobson told CBC News in a telephone interview.

The Toronto Transit Commission expects a 10 to 15 per cent jump in ridership this fall, after students are back at school and "more people return to in-office work."

outside of the Côte-Vertu Metro station in Montreal.
A file photo shows the exterior of Montreal's Côte-Vertu subway station. The Société de transport de Montréal expects to see more people taking transit this fall as students head back to school and more people head back to the office. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

That mirrors what Société de transport de Montréal is expecting.

"We are currently at 65 per cent of pre-pandemic level and we expect to get to 70 to 80 per cent this fall, mainly due to the return of workers and students," STM spokesperson Amélie Régis said in an email.

Many employees will be in the office 'more often' than now

Some notable large employers in Canada are pushing to bring more people back on-site this fall — though depending on their new working arrangements, those employees may not be going to the office every day.

Royal Bank of Canada, which has more than 60,000 employees based in Canada, is seeking to see leaders and staff in the office "more often" — with president and CEO Dave McKay making the case that people thrive from working together.

Royal Bank of Canada has more than 60,000 staff based in Canada. The company's president and CEO has indicated the organization wants to see its teams spending 'more time' in the office. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We know that not all roles or teams are the same, and many types of work can be done productively at home or off-site," McKay wrote in a recent post on LinkedIn.

"At the same time, there's an energy and spontaneity that comes from connecting in-person that I don't believe technology can replicate."

At Canadian Tire, corporate staff working in hybrid roles have "no mandated 'office days' or a set number of days our employees are expected to be on-site," said Christopher Gray, the company's vice-president of culture and organizational design, in an emailed statement. 

Canadian Tire corporate staff who work in hybrid roles do not have a mandated number of days they must spend in the office, according to Christopher Gray, the company's vice president of culture and organizational design. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Even so, Canadian Tire has invested in "new technology, modern amenities and collaboration spaces" and believes its employees "will continue to gather more frequently in person," he said.

The federal government, which employs more than 300,000 public servants, also intends to see more people stepping foot inside its facilities — and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat says this process has been underway, for various departments, since the spring. 

In an email, the board said "the Government of Canada has been testing new hybrid models with a view to full implementation in the fall" as public health considerations permit.

Unions representing public servants have expressed concerns about this plan.

'No real justification'

Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, said the government has not made a clear enough case as to why more time in the office is needed — and it hasn't indicated there's a problem with the work that public servants are doing from home either.

"No real justification is being brought forward," said Phillips, whose union represents 23,000 members including government economists, translators and interpreters.

Stanford University's Bloom has been part of a large effort to examine people's experiences working from home during the pandemic.

And the research is pointing to a future where workers want to retain the flexibility they have been accustomed to over the past two-and-a-half years.

A February 2022 survey involving more than 20,000 participants around the globe, indicated 15 per cent of these respondents would quit their jobs if they were forced to be back at work five days a week.

An even-higher proportion of Canadians — nearly 22 per cent — felt that way.

"Canada has, like the U.S., a highly developed economy with a high number of professional jobs that can [be] done remotely, a highly educated workforce and many people living a long commute from work," said Bloom.

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