COVID-19 Changed Office Work. Here’s What the ‘Next Normal’ Looks Like as People 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. “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, 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 4% 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%.
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. It estimates the proportion of people heading into these spaces — as of its most-recent snapshot from mid-August — is still less than 30% 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.
The Toronto Transit Commission expects a 10% to 15% jump in ridership this fall, after students are back at school and “more people return to in-office work.” That mirrors what Société de transport de Montréal is expecting. “We are currently at 65% of pre-pandemic level and we expect to get to 70% to 80% 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.
“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. 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.
‘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% 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% — 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.