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Questions to Ponder for a Post-Pandemic "Office"

As most of the country outside of the Maritimes are working through new stricter lockdowns to deal with a surging COVID virus in a predicted winter spike, we hold out increased hope that beyond the next few months there will be better days ahead as the vaccine gets distributed to the wider Canadian and global population. With that, it's fair to ask what will change as workplaces begin to reopen and what lessons have we learned about remote working.

The IT/Technology industry "at large" was able to pivot relatively seamlessly, as one may have assumed, to working remotely with very few hiccups. The Federal Government impressed with the ability to get much needed fiscal programs up and running digitally in record time, at the same time as they moved the majority of their workforce home; likewise, for many in private sector.

So, what to make as we move forward and the pandemic has all but normalized remote work? Will we go to the office again, and if so, at what frequency? Is it a hybrid model of working? What changes are to come in how we communicate, connect and innovate?

But, is there any real choice? Recent polls of many knowledge workers showed that only 12% want to go back to full time office-based work and more than 70% prefer a hybrid model. What that means and where we go from here raises more questions than answers.

The shift to more remote work, or even all remote, is massive and consequential as both employers and people make new choices about where they in fact live and where they hire from. Senior Federal Government executives have talked now about truly decentralizing both FTE jobs and contracts outside of Ottawa and across to the rest of the country.

With a "virtual first" default mode, we are definitely seeing changes in the way clients hire, looking beyond geographic boundaries to search and hire nationally and indeed globally. Perhaps it was a natural change in the way we source talent, but nevertheless, that direction has been accelerated now.

There are a number of other societal impacts, and while the grind of the one hour plus commutes to downtown cores will not be missed, what's to become of the many downtown restaurants, dry cleaning stores, cleaners, retail stores and all of the workers and support staff in those industries? The estimates are there is as much as 60% of today's workforce that can't work remotely who are at risk as we move forward. What of working parents with children at home and all the inherent challenges that can pose? The burden on working parents in these circumstances is real and, in many ways, unsustainable.

As social beings, we all need human interaction and as we move to a remote/ hybrid model, what of the "natural" conversations that help bind us, and in work teams, help us grow, solve problems and innovate? The pandemic has led to a loneliness epidemic for many. There are a number of indicators that this is particularly harder on younger workers, millennials and Gen Z'ers, as many friendships, and in fact social circles, are formed through office or location-based work. The inability to be face-to-face with co-workers or with clients is a challenge. We as humans communicate through more than words, but also by body language and tone, which all are more difficult to "interpret " and process over a Zoom call. How do organizations work to establish their culture and values without the "heartbeat" of an office and coworkers and, yes Managers, who strive to demonstrate and live the company culture?

It will be incumbent on leaders to look to other ways to promote their values, goals and culture to ensure a dispersed workforce understands what that is and can participate and grow in it.

Change is good and there is much good that will come out of this dreadful year in our lives. We all we need to take the time now to help shape how we want to live, work, and play post-pandemic, such that we are living balanced, healthy and productive lives. Let's stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, stay safe, be kind!