Home Month and Year June 2021 Workplace of tomorrow, today

Workplace of tomorrow, today

Local business leaders say the ‘future’ office will be driven by desire for flexibility


You don’t have to remind Kurby Court that the last year and a half has been a rollercoaster ride. He’s had a front-row seat.

Court’s first day as president and CEO of the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre was March 4, 2020. Two weeks later, Canada was in a pandemic, prompting him to lay off staff, followed by a seesaw of restrictions easing, tightening and eventually resulting in the convention centre becoming Alberta’s largest vaccination site.

“It’s been an absolute rollercoaster,” says Court. “But the biggest thing for us is every single staff member here knows we’re contributing to re-opening.”

Seeing the forest through the trees started at the outset of the pandemic for Court as his team sought to make sense of the pandemic’s impact to the convention calendar – made all the more difficult by new, and foreign, remote working conditions.

“Up to this point, we, as an organization, had been very contact focused,” says Court. “For this team to go remote was a stretch. Remote working was something we were never intending to set up.

“Not surprisingly, virtual fatigue set in early. There was the stress of rearranging the convention calendar. Emotions were at an all-time high. The technology wasn’t there to begin with. We had to quickly pivot, including putting our leadership capabilities to the test on how to handle this, especially from a human aspect.”

Fast-forward to a year later and many of his staff are now back on site to some degree. But it has also led Court to the inevitable question of what will his workplace look like moving forward?

“For the foreseeable future, I see us keeping remote working in play,” he says. “And I think our employees have come to value the flexibility – and for us to trust them doing it. From an employee-employer relationship, this can be a real nice opportunity for employers to showcase their trust.”

Court is not alone. As vaccine efforts shine a light at the end of the tunnel, more flexible work arrangements are being considered by many organizations as a permanent solution.

At the Chamber of Commerce, Ruhee Ismail-Teja, acting director of policy and communications, says many members have shifted the culture within their organization to be more focused on deliverables and, in many cases, are rethinking the role of the workplace.

“Most of what I’m hearing from our members is about shifting to a hybrid approach. A lot have expressed how hard it is to collaborate without being in the office, but they also see the value of flexibility,” she says.

For the Chamber itself, staff have been working from home throughout the pandemic. Ismail-Teja says because the transition to remote working has gone smoothy, there hasn’t been a rush to go back to the office and, therefore, are anticipating working from home for the remainder of the second quarter with a re-evaluation closer to summer.

“Longer term, we are planning to go back mostly or completely full time, as many of us miss the social aspects of work, particularly being a small staff team,” she says. “That said, I think we will have added flexibility for employees given that we have confidence in our staff team’s ability to do great work while away from the office.”

At Stikeman Elliott, preparations for a possible remote work scenario began long before the official order home in March 2020.

Nicole Lecours, executive director of the Calgary office, says business continuity preparations involved all offices from across the country, and, as a result, “we were quick to make the transition to remote. It was incredibly smooth in terms of how well it went and how efficiently people were able to function.”

While a small contingent of staff have remained on site throughout the pandemic, the rest have largely remained remote. Lecours estimates at the high end, only 15 per cent of the staff have been in the office at a given time – compared with a full-time in-office environment pre-pandemic.

As for the future, Lecours says Stikeman Elliott is still having those conversations to determine the best fit moving forward.

“But one interesting piece involves office space planning for the workforce of the future, for when our lease expires,” she says. “That is a huge factor because at that time we will need to decide how much space we need, and how it needs to be designed. Whatever we decide will undoubtedly reflect what we have learned from our remote operations during the pandemic.”

Koula Vasilopoulos, district president for Western Canada and South America at global human resource consulting firm Robert Half, agrees that “flexibility” will be a prevalent theme moving forward.

“They want that choice. They want to be able to make the choice that’s right for them without any kind of guilt tied to it,” says Vasilopoulos, who is based in Calgary.

Those sentiments were backed by a recent survey by Robert Half that found more than half of all employees surveyed prefer a hybrid work arrangement. Interestingly, one-third would look for a new job if required to be in the office full time.

“(The responses) were not surprising to me at all. It’s not only consistent with what clients have been telling us,” says Vasilopoulos. “As we’ve navigated through the last year, they’ve recognized there’s benefit to work-life integration, but also a realization that they miss the human interaction – the social part of working with others.

“The sooner that companies can understand the needs, the wants and the desires of their employees and the people on their team, the sooner they’ll be able to begin to help people shape what their future space looks like.”

Alistair Shepherd-Cross, president and co-founder of Teamit, a Calgary-based company that specializes in helping companies recruit, cultivate and sustain high-performing, remote technical teams, noted over the past six months many companies have come to the realization that some form of remote working might be viable post pandemic.

“Many have seen the value of remote work and have put to bed a lot of the old biases and concerns about productivity and whether it could actually be done,” says Shepherd-Cross, whose company has helped move more than a dozen tech companies from the Silicon Valley to Calgary over the past four years.

“They’ve seen the realization that this is the future and have embraced a lot of the things that have gone on over the past 12 to 16 months. And it’s poured rocket fuel on something that was already going on.”

Shepherd-Cross also anticipates many sectors will see increased competition for talent as job seekers have more choices for companies willing to hire outside of the local area.

“People looking for work now have vast numbers of opportunities to consider compared to what they did a year ago, which has made the entire market more competitive and has already started to push up salaries,” he says.

Dr. Laura Hambley, Calgary-based partner at Humance, a national human resources consulting firm and co-founder of Work EvOHlution, adds that while Calgary has been an employers’ market for some time, that will soon shift to the employees’ favour.

“In the war for talent, organizations that have adopted flexibility as part of their culture will win,” says Hambley, who has been focused on remote team leadership as early as 2003, including authoring books on telework adoption. “People will leave for less money in exchange for flexibility.”

Yet she adds that in this hybrid environment, Hambley adds it won’t be black and white, either.

“It can’t be a manager saying yes or no,” she says. “A true hybrid will be done as a strategic transformation into the future of work and what we want our organization to be.”