Here’s what Canada’s business leaders think about heading back to the office

It’s been more than 500 days since millions of Canadian employees were forced to suddenly work from home because of COVID-19.

While the pandemic is far from over, some workplaces are starting to tackle the tough questions of when and whether to come back into the office again — and what work life will look like for people, no matter where they do it.

CBC News reached out to dozens of business leaders across the country for their thoughts on the return to work.

In responses from across Canada, from tiny non-profits with a handful of employees, to tech startups, energy firms and financial giants with tens of thousands of workers, one sentiment was echoed again and again: Things definitely won’t be exactly how they used to be.

“It won’t be a one-size-fits-all,” said Guy Cormier, CEO of the Montreal-based financial services giant Desjardins.

Desjardins doesn’t plan on flipping a switch and calling everyone who used to be in the office to come back in. Instead, the company plans to allow for all sorts of arrangements. Many people will come back into the office basically full time, if they want to and it makes sense to, while some former office dwellers will stay at home permanently. Others will adopt the so-called hybrid model, where they switch between the two.

“We will adapt with our staff and be sure that there’s … balance between their lives and their work,” Cormier said.

It’s a similar story at the big banks; both TD and CIBC say they plan to incorporate a lot more work from home into their business from now on.

“The majority of our team can work from anywhere, be productive and do incredible work. But there are also things we do best in person and together,” said CIBC’s group head of people Sandy Sharman. “The future of how and where they work will blend the best of both worlds.”

The pandemic that started in March 2020 forced millions of Canadian office workers to work from home, but that will likely not be the case forever. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We anticipate that colleagues will continue to enjoy more work-life flexibility, including remote work and hybrid options where it is possible. However, we believe that most roles will require some presence in the office, in order to foster collaboration, innovation and strengthening of our culture,” said TD’s chief human resource officer Kenn Lalonde.

Cenovus Energy will be going the hybrid route, allowing people to work up to two days a week from home — if they want it and if the job realistically allows.

“We’re planning to use a hybrid workplace flexibility model — with office staff able to work from home up to two days a week, role permitting,” the Calgary-based company’s executive vice-president, Sarah Walters, said in an email. “The new model will be implemented in September to coincide with the majority of our office returns and we will be assessing this approach over time to ensure it’s the best fit for our workplace.”

Hybrid approach

Staffing firm Manpower knows better than most that tailoring the arrangement on a case-to-case basis works best, so that’s what they’ll be doing with their own employees. “We need to be flexible in order to attract and retain some of the top talent in the market,” said Darlene Minatel, Manpower’s country manager for Canada.

Marketing agency Brand Momentum will be similarly flexible, but they will require staff to make an appearance in the office in either Toronto or Montreal at least three days a week, said CEO Hesham Shafie.

Insurance giant Sun Life, meanwhile, is open to anything that gets the job done. “We’re not imposing any minimum or maximum in terms of being in the office,” president Jacques Goulet said. “In fact, we don’t talk about return to office — what we’re talking about is opening our offices for work.”

Businesses of all stripes are struggling with how to operate in the middle of a pandemic — and beyond. (Stefanie Loos/Bloomberg)

St John’s-based software company Celtx says it plans to proceed with whatever system works best for its employees — and above all, whatever they decide to do, it will roll out slowly. “We’re not going to do anything sudden, it’ll be done with a lot of consultation,” CEO Mark Kennedy said, adding that, ultimately, keeping his employees happy is good for business. “If you have a happy employee, usually you have a productive employee.”

Indeed, if there’s one lesson the pandemic disruption has taught Canadian business leaders, it’s that there can be a better way than what they were doing.

Lessons learned

Celtx employed a good chunk of remote workers even before COVID-19 hit, so the company had a bit of a leg up in terms of making it work for everyone. “We actually leaned on our remote workers to tell people who were used to working in an office what were some of the tips they could employ,” Kennedy said. “We just put some of those best practices into use for everyone.”

While Brand Momentum will want its staff to be in the office at least part time, Shafie says they have no intention of forcing people back. Far from it; he says working from home has actually made the company more productive.

Business leaders say smart companies will come up with arrangements that work best for their employees’ life situations, to keep them happy and productive. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

“Because many of our people were driving half an hour, an hour each way to get to the office, now these two hours they’re able to use [that] productivity for the family, for the life. So they’re happier as a result,” he said. “It’s been a transformation.”

Ultimately, no company should expect things to go back to how they were before — and any ones that do are likely to suffer for it.

Montreal-based marketing firm helloDarwin plans to go the hybrid route of having office space there for those who want it, home work for others, and a mix-and-match for everyone else. The system has worked well through the pandemic, says CEO Mathieu Plante, so they have no plans to change it.

And he has a warning for any corporate executives who long to get back to the days of valuing face time in the office over everything.

“If an employer cannot accommodate his workforce in 2021, for sure, [they] will see departures, people leaving the company.”

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