If the way we work is going to change, offices are going to change, too

At organizations across Canada, decision-makers are looking at how their physical workspaces need to function as they plan how their employees will make use of them in the future — even if their staff end up spending less time there than they used to.

Organizations looking at how workspaces need to function as people return to them

Individuals wear masks while working at computers in an office.
Since early September, Square Enix Montréal has allowed staff to return to its office on a voluntary basis after it closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. About 20 people — a fraction of the 150 local staff — are heading into the office each day at this point. (Submitted by Nedjma Belbahri)

Communications director Nedjma Belbahri doesn't miss the old days at Square Enix Montréal, before the pandemic pushed everybody home.

That's because she wasn't working for the mobile game developer until after that happened.

"They closed the office on the Friday and I started on the Monday," said Belbahri, rewinding the story back to March 2020.

The company soon shipped computers, chairs and other equipment to its staff so they could set up shop at home. It wasn't an easy shift for everyone, but they made it work.

Today, Square Enix Montréal is a few months into a gradual process of bringing its employees back to the office — with staff consent and with adjustments to how things work there.

"I don't think things need to be the same," Belbahri said. "I think we need to stop hoping to go back [to the way things were] because no one's going to go back."

Nedjma Belbahri, director of communications for Square Enix Montréal, started working for her employer just after the pandemic was declared. The company sent its workers home on a Friday and Belbahri started her new job on the following Monday. (Submitted by Nedjma Belbahri)

At organizations across Canada, decision-makers are looking at how their physical workspaces need to function, as they plan how their people will make use of them in the future — even if their staff end up spending less time there in the long term.

In some cases, that's spurring changes to those spaces, including office equipment and infrastructure upgrades, as well as a rethink of the ways people will work there.

'Work is about people'

In September, Square Enix Montréal began allowing its staff to return to its downtown office on a voluntary basis.

Just a handful of people went at first, but that number is slowly ticking upward. Belbahri said about 20 people — a fraction of the 150 local staff — are heading into the office each day at this point.

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Belbahri said internal surveys show three main reasons team members want to be there: to socialize, to get out of the house and to collaborate with colleagues.

"So, work is not about work — work is about people," she said.

But their office is different than it used to be, as staff don't have their own machines to use at work anymore because those devices are at their homes.

The Square Enix Montréal office is different than it used to be, as staff don't have their own machines to use at work anymore because those devices are at their homes. Instead, they have to book the use of a floating workstation for a particular day. (Submitted by Nedjma Belbahri)

Instead, they have to book the use of a floating workstation for a particular day.

Another change? All the drawers that used to sit under the desks are gone.

"We actually sold them off," Belbahri said, noting they've been replaced with lockers because "nobody was going to store things at their desk anymore."

An app for that

At the nearby local offices of SAP Canada — a multinational software company that employs more than 3,000 people across its Canadian workforce —  staff are also using technology to plan out their use of office space.

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Specifically, employees at this newly opened Montreal facility — where SAP Canada is piloting future-of-work ideas — have an app for that.

"You can, through this app, schedule your day and book the areas [where] you intend to work," said Megan Smith, the head of HR at SAP Canada.

That's key in an office that lacks assigned seating.

The app also lets employees see who else will be in the office on a given day, so they can determine who they plan to interact with. 

Accelerated trends

Smith said the tech sector had been highly focused on hybrid work for some time, but these arrangements have become "way more pervasively accepted" during the pandemic.

"We definitely had certain functions that were considered office functions, and now pretty much everything's on the table as a job that could be done remotely," she said.

A worker walks along an office tower bridge in Toronto in October 2020. The pandemic has forced organizations and their employees to adapt to new ways of working — and that has implications for their office and workspace needs. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sheila Botting, a Toronto-based executive with commercial real estate firm Avison Young Canada, agrees that changes happening pre-pandemic have picked up momentum amid a broader adoption of flexible work.

"Now we all understand that we can work anywhere, any time, any place with anyone in any way that we want," Botting said.

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That has real estate implications — as organizations may decide they need less space now than before the pandemic.

Botting said commercial real estate tenants typically lease space in five- or 10-year increments. But those with leases expiring in the next few years are thinking about their changing needs.

"They're saying to themselves: 'Well, what is the art of the possible? What could our future workplace look like?'" 

Looking ahead

ATB Financial, a provincial Crown corporation that employs more than 5,000 people in Alberta, has been thinking a lot about how its workspaces work for its staff.

"How we work together is a critical enabler of our culture," Tara Lockyer, ATB's chief people officer, said in a statement.

"In recent years, we've started to rethink how we allocate and occupy space to ensure we're using our workspaces as efficiently as possible and enabling the work we're actually doing."

ATB has corporate staff it hopes to see spending more time in its workplaces next year.

Team leaders will determine "the optimal mix" of future in-person work, Lockyer said.

Touchless features, better air filtration

Telecommunications giant Telus is aiming to reopen its offices early next year — but the company expects 90 per cent of its staff will still be working remotely.

telus sign on a telus office in Toronto
Telus is aiming to reopen its offices in early 2022. But when that happens, the vast majority of its staff will still be working virtually. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"We believe the workplace of the future will be increasingly virtual," Jennifer Anquetil, the company's director of people and culture, said in an emailed statement.

Anquetil said leaders at Telus are being encouraged to move toward a world where the office is a place to collaborate and meet with team members, on whatever schedule "makes sense for the individual and their team."

The company, which employs 29,000 people nationwide, is in the midst of "transforming its office spaces," Anquetil said.

Some of the heath-and-safety-minded changes include the integration of more touchless doors and enhanced air filtration "where possible," she said.

Headed for hybrid

ATB Financial, Microsoft Canada, SAP Canada, Telus and some of Canada's big banks are among the large employers signalling they'll embrace a more flexible future.

The federal government, the country's largest employer, is thinking about doing the same.

The federal government is Canada's largest employer. Most public servants are working at home these days. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Most public servants remain working at home, the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada said via email — though updated guidelines permit more of them to "work together in larger numbers" again.

However, the board pointed to recent remarks by Treasury Board President Mona Fortier about the direction the public service is headed.

And it said the government will continue "to build flexibility into our work models, including hybrid work, where this is possible and where it makes sense."