Office closures result in massive remote working “pilot project”
Article originally published in REMI Network, Canadian Facility Management & Design.
Thursday, March 26, 2020,
By Rebecca Melnyk

Many companies have been forced to rethink traditional workplace structures in the past few weeks as physical office space quickly morphs into work-from-home situations for the time being. The length of time companies will be operating without a dedicated space hinges on the evolution of this public health emergency.

Some short-term impacts are already obvious—adopting virtual tools, maintaining team dynamics, coordinating work, committing to required investments as the economy shifts and finding the right work-life balance are just a few challenges the Colliers Canada Workplace Advisory Team is flagging.

More long-term changes are harder to predict, but some workplace strategists are already suggesting this current pandemic will likely alter the future workplace in a variety of ways.

“From a workplace perspective it’s an interesting experiment going on now—so many workers are working remotely,” says Kevin Katigbak, senior workplace strategist at Gensler. “A lot of people have been sort of apprehensive about ideas around mobility and work-from-home, but now we’re all forced to work in that way and it’s almost this forced trust—you have to trust employees to get their job done.”

As a result, remote working could become a more viable option for companies to offer employees, he says.

Meredith Thatcher is a certified facility manager, IFMA fellow, workplace strategist and co-founder of AgileWork Evolutions. She is also a long-time advocate for flexible work arrangements and believes this sustained exposure to work-from-home environments for millions of people will result in changes to workplace perceptions for both employers and employees.

“For some employers, we believe there will be a new level of tolerance for working at home and a much better understanding of what is needed to effectively enable a workforce,” she says. “We may see these same organizations shed real estate in future, while looking to offer a balance between work-from-home and an office environment.”

Other employers are likely to return to traditional ways of working; however, their employees may have other ideas.

“While we must recognize that working from home is not for everyone, there is something to be said about having the choice and flexibility to do so,” she says. “This crisis will expose employees to both what they like and don’t like about remote working. But most will eventually recognize that it’s a balance that is desired.”

The shift to remote work has been sudden. As with any workplace transformation, some employers will return to previous business practices, agrees Christine Weber, vice-president of workplace strategy and innovation, central and eastern Canada at Colliers Canada. Others, she says, will embrace this as a learning opportunity for what will become the “collective new normal.” Either way, the traditional office will still have purpose.

“Redefining that purpose is the opportunity in front of us,” says Weber. “Organizations will have a chance to reconsider how the work environment enriches their culture, enhances community and connection, and impacts business continuity. Enabling organizations with greater flexibility and long-term strategies, tactics and tools to enhance remote working will result. We can use this experience to test, refine and enhance distributed work strategies of the future.”

While it is difficult to predict if companies will go back to the status-quo or how employees will be changed as workers, a few key areas have current influence.

According to Colliers Canada Workplace Advisory Team, these include a heightened sense of community and responsibility, a stronger focus on employee health and wellness, and digital adoption. With everyone working in “hyper-learning mode,” this could change how people work together.

“This crisis has morphed into the world’s largest pilot program ever, Weber adds. “ We have a collective responsibility to learn from it, adopt new ideas, and evaluate how this will impact work, people and culture long term.”

Trust will be the biggest challenge to work through in the coming weeks and months, she says. Companies “will need to learn how to adapt expectations and learn new rules of engagement.” According to a 2018 study from job listings site Indeed, 62 per cent of Canadian employers offer their workers the chance to work remotely. Meanwhile, global statistics as of 2016 from Vodafone reveal 75 per cent of companies now have flexible working policies. More than half report these changes increased their profits.

“If you empower your employees to work in the way that is most effective for them, that shows a great deal of trust in the people that work for you and you work with,” says Katigbak. “If that’s not your culture, this is a good way to start looking at it through a different lens, to recognize that you can trust how people are going to work. At the end of the day, we’re all adults who have to get a job done.”