Big shift back to in-person office work expected this month in Toronto as COVID-19 restrictions lift

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, many Toronto offices large and small will be welcoming back employees this month. But it will not be a return to the workplace as we knew it, employers say.

Many companies offering mix of in-person, remote work as staff set to return

A view of Toronto's skyline from west of the waterfront. A big shift back to the office is expected in Canada's largest city this month as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. But not all workplaces are finished with remote work. (John Badcock/CBC )

With COVID-19 restrictions easing in March, employees at Toronto ad agency Fuse Create will be required to come into the office only one day per month — but the firm's managing director expects to see her staff a lot more often than that.

Aleena Mazhar says many employees who have been working from home are looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and rediscovering what she calls the creative "pulse" of the office.

"There's excitement," Mazhar said in an interview. "Pre-pandemic, it was a very sort of vibrant, high-energy place where there was a lot of collaboration.

"It's a very team-based type of work. Relationships are big. So that connection, whether it's with their peers or with their clients or even within their teams, just seems to be missing," she said.

With capacity limits and proof-of-vaccination requirements lifting across the province Tuesday and other measures phasing out in the coming weeks, a significant shift back to in-person work is expected in Toronto offices both large and small this month. But it will not be a return to the workplace as we knew it, with many companies opting to continue with some form of remote work.

Aleena Mazhar, managing director of Fuse Create, a Toronto-based advertising firm. The company is preparing for employees to return to the office. (Submitted by Fuse Create)

Fuse Create, which has roughly 70 employees, has renovated its Ossington Avenue office to better suit the new style. There are fewer individual workspaces and more room for collaborative projects. Teamwork will be the focus at the office, while independent jobs can be done remotely.

"What we're trying to do is change the role of the office to be a connective spot and a hub for people to get together," Mazhar said.

City of Toronto, bank workers returning in March

Employees with the City of Toronto who have been working from home are expected back in the office by March 21.

That's also when CIBC is expecting to recall employees. However, like many businesses, the bank will allow some of its workforce to stay at home.

"CIBC will be leveraging remote work as part of our business model for many team members moving forward," Sandy Sharman, the bank's group head for people, culture and brand, wrote in an email. 

"The majority of team members in Canada who are now working remotely will return to the office on a hybrid basis, rejoining our colleagues who have been working on-site all along to meet our clients' needs."

Meanwhile, a date hasn't been set for a return to the office for Ontario Public Service (OPS) employees working from home.

Richard Mullin, spokesperson for the President of the Treasury Board, says the OPS will continue to follow the guidance of Ontario's chief medical officer of health. 

The return to the office will be "safe, gradual and flexible," he said in an email.

While a hybrid mix of in-person and remote work appears to be a common compromise for white-collar employers, some companies aren't expecting or demanding a return to the office.

Reza Khadjavi, CEO of Shoelace, a Toronto-based marketing company that will continue with remote work despite the lifting of many COVID-19 restrictions and public health measures. (Submitted by Shoelace)

Shoelace, a marketing firm based in downtown Toronto, is now "100 per cent remote first," according to CEO and co-founder Reza Khadjavi.

The shift means the company's 8,000-square-foot office at Yonge and Carlton streets will continue to sit mostly empty, as it has been for the past two years.

"Nobody uses it," Khadjavi said.

Many of Shoelace's 36 employees have left Toronto. Some went to other provinces, others to Europe. The company is now hiring remotely with no expectation of coming to the office. Khadjavi says for some job seekers, it's a deal-breaker.

"We actually just hired a new team member and the reason he was looking for a new job was that his current company was forcing people to go back once a week, and that was not going to work for him," Khadjavi said.

For employers that are bringing back some form of in-person work, there will be more flexibility and sensitivity around workers' needs and comfort level dealing with COVID-19. Mazhar says there will be more of a focus on mental health and well-being for employees struggling to adapt.

"Making sure they feel comfortable is paramount."


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.