Traditional office or work-from-home? Edmonton businesses rethink the post-pandemic workplace

Chad Verity doesn’t know exactly what the future will look like for his software company, but he’s fairly certain it won’t involve a traditional office space.

Reduced costs, increased productivity weighed against loss of social connection

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Chad Verity doesn't know exactly what the future will look like for his software company, but he's fairly certain it won't involve a traditional office space. 

"We took 10 years of inevitable change and shoved it into two weeks," said Verity. "We have the technology today to really work from anywhere. Why does it matter that we're all in an office together?"

Verity's startup, Hölmetrics, helps companies improve mental health and safety at work by analyzing how employees interact with each other.

He's currently managing his 11 employees from his home in Red Deer. He is not planning on returning to the office space the team used to share before the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Hölmetrics CEO Chad Verity is considering a permanent work-from-home model. (Supplied by Chad Verity )

Verity said his employees appreciate the flexibility and freedom that comes with working from home. 

"One-size-fits-all is the way of the past when it comes to management," he said. 

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Many companies were surprised by how well they adapted to the pandemic, said Margot Ross-Graham, workplace consultant and founder of Sandbar Coaching and Consulting in Edmonton. 

It's unlikely that companies will go back to doing things exactly like they were before, she said. 

"The range of what they're going to go back to is what they're talking about right now," said Ross-Graham. 

"Some of them have the luxury to think through 'OK, what has worked in this last little bit? What do we want to do differently? What should we keep from what we learned?'"

'People want to gather'

Smart Access CEO Tim Regnier says his company will save on rent by downsizing or eliminating its office space. (Supplied by Tim Regnier)

For Tim Regnier, CEO of the Edmonton tech company Smart Access, the new normal might be a small office where staff are free to come and go. 

Smart Access is a software company that helps retailers communicate more effectively with their staff. Its developers can work from anywhere, Regnier said. 

"I would think a lot of companies like us are probably taking a hard look at whether they need their office space," he said. 

The company is saving money by reducing its office footprint and productivity is up now that there are no more commutes and office chit-chat taking up time, said Regnier.

The lack of face-to-face interactions, though, has left his staff craving connection, he said. 

"Probably the biggest surprise for me is that people want to gather and they still want to be a part of the team even though we're quite a bit distant."

Measuring performance

Maintaining employee engagement has to be a priority in a remote workplace, said Ross-Graham. 

"That's something we should be thinking about as employers. What culture do we want? How do we want to build that?"

Companies transitioning to a remote workplace will have to rethink how they measure productivity, Ross-Graham said.

Workplace consultant Margot Ross-Graham says many companies were surprised how successfully they were able to implement a work-from-home model. (Emilie Iggiotti Photography)

"There will be challenges in figuring out how the job has changed and how we evaluate that job and ensure performance."

For Hölmetrics, the key to managing employees at a distance is having clear indicators and expectations, said Verity.

Productivity isn't necessarily reflected by the amount of time spent at work, he said. 

"Butt-in-chair is probably the laziest way that you can measure that," Verity said. "Assuming that everyone works best from nine to five, it's just not accurate."

Benefits will also change

The pandemic has also restricted the way people use the health benefits they receive through their employer, said Lori Power, a group benefits specialist with MP Benefits in Edmonton. 

Lori Power, a group benefits specialist, says the pandemic has highlighted the need for benefits that cover virtual care. (Supplied by Lori Power)

It doesn't make sense to pay for health benefits that employees can't access because of physical distancing, she said. 

"In the future that might look like a health-spending account. Something that is a modified version but more cost-effective."

On the flip side, employees are accessing virtual care more than ever, said Power.

They also need support from their employer as they prepare to reintegrate into the workplace, she said.

"An employee assistance program that may not have been considered previously is now a must," Power said.

"That is going to be an essential tool for employers to get their staff back and mentally prepared for work."