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Employees are ‘in the driver’s seat’: How employers are trying to lure people back to the office


After two years of Zoom meetings and soft pants, the office is back, baby, and it’s not just a desk anymore

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Imagine you were building an office tower when the pandemic hit and Canada’s offices were frozen in time. Heck, imagine you were building two of them in the middle of downtown Toronto, proper trophy towers for a big bank, and then for a while at least, nobody went to offices at all. They weren’t even allowed to. And then office workers started saying they might not want to ever go back, not like before anyway. What would you do? What might you change for the new normal?

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Spring has sprung at the post-pandemic office. All across North America, big corporate offices are like dry riverbeds after the rain. Last week it was Google. This week it will be Apple. TD just announced plans.

The mood is vibrant but tense, with one recent poll showing 81 per cent of Toronto area office workers posted to their homes are happier that way. More than half say they would be comfortable returning to the office in some way, but they are not terribly keen on it, and everyone seems to agree that the old ways of office attendance are gone like the snows of yesteryear.

The first Toronto office tower to open post lockdown, CIBC Square on Bay Street across from the Scotiabank Arena, is very nice, the kind of place you might like to spend a day, even a whole work week. The National Post spent a morning there to see plenty of reasons why, all chosen and designed with care, and then rethought and fine-tuned under the wild pressure of a global pandemic that threatened the very concept of the office itself.

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The pandemic sparked a “massive forced experiment,” said Jonathan Pearce, executive vice president of leasing and development at Ivanhoé Cambridge, which broke ground on this first CIBC Square tower in 2017, and is now building the second nearby across the railway tracks to the north.

This experiment, about what an office tower should be like after a pandemic, demonstrated what Pearce calls a “fusion of asset classes.” Just as retail merges with logistics, so too does office space merge with hospitality.

So the basic strategy was to make these new office towers more pleasant to be in. Pearce said they tried to pivot their offerings to focus more on the office experience, “on what you don’t have at home.”

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“I don’t think people are going to come in to sit on Zoom calls. Companies and landlords are naive if they expect that to happen,” Pearce said. “We were headed the right way, but the pandemic forced us to amplify those services, more focused on hospitality, and more focused on what people don’t have.”

The effort is to return time to the employee, to make the commute worthwhile rather than strictly necessary. “It becomes a third place,” Pearce said, after work and home.

One early focus that declined in importance as the pandemic went on was the goal of not touching things. Some elements remain in the design, like the building app that sends guests a QR code to scan at entry gates and also programs the elevator to take them to the right floor, with no button pushing at all. But the science on pandemic safety found this was not a main vector of viral spread. So there are door knobs. Some things have buttons. Some things don’t change permanently.

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“Our conviction from a cultural standpoint was that people wanted to be around other people and this vision of permanently working from home will not come to pass,” said Avi Tesciuba, Canada country head at Hines, a real estate firm that partnered with Ivanoé Cambridge in the CIBC Square project.

So there is a tenants-only fourth floor “canopy” deck with harvest tables and a concierge station and places to sit and gather. Meals are similarly prioritized, with offerings modelled on the idea of food trucks, where vendors can cycle in and out of smaller stations, and chairs and stools and benches that are not bolted to the floor, as in the typical franchised basement food court. A white table cloth restaurant from an established name is in the works but not yet announced.

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Across downtown on Duncan Street, media conglomerate Thomson Reuters is soon to open its Toronto Technology Centre, where construction started in 2017. A final interior design was ready by early 2020, but the lockdown inspired major changes on the fly. These changes, in turn, will serve as a real-life test of the company’s plans for five new floors in a 57-floor tower to be built above the existing five.

The building is heritage designated, the old Southam Press Building, built in 1908, four years after fire wrecked Toronto’s downtown. The project is to design a modern office into an old warehouse that still stands as a relic of a mighty Canadian company long since gone, but with newspaper titles that continue, including this one, which is curious because Thomson Reuters is majority owned by the Thomson family, which also owns The Globe and Mail.

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Here near the theatres, the office real estate vibe is a little more bohemian. They do not need to reproduce any food truck vibes. Their employees can just step outside. Here, the most promising lunch is not at that harvest table on the private mezzanine above the marble-clad lobby, but across the street at a casual basement noodle bar run by Toronto’s best loved Thai restaurateurs.

But the corporate dynamics of the disrupted office are similar. Thomson Reuters’ initial plan called for 70 per cent of the space to be devoted to “focus” on private work, and 15 per cent each to collaboration and connection. The pandemic revised plan drastically revised that, cut focus space in half, and boosted collaboration to fully 45 per cent of the space.

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“Everybody is trying to figure out what the future of work looks like. There is no playbook,” said
Mary-Alice Vuicic, chief people officer at Thomson Reuters, in an interview on the first day of the company’s new hybrid back-to-work policy.

Employees are newly “in the driver’s seat,” she said, and employers are realizing that, in general, they need less real estate and must use what they have differently.

“You have to be much more purposeful as an employer about how you use time in the office,” Vuicic said. “People don’t want to come in to sit at a screen.”

Some of the solutions are ingenious, inventive, technological and aim to minimize the use of rented office space. In Montreal, for example, X2O Media markets an “immersive collaboration technology” that sets up a room to remotely recreate a theatre, or musical stage, or conference room, classroom, boardroom or “situation room,” so finely tuned that each screen has a dedicated camera for true eye contact.

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Some solutions are behavioural, but stay in the old spaces of office blocks, like the hybrid model of a reduced in-person work week or hot-desking, where work stations are shared day to day.

And some solutions just give up on the old ways altogether, and seek reinvention beyond the pandemic’s disruption.

After two years of Zoom meetings and soft pants, the office is back, baby, and it’s not just a desk anymore.

* * *

Back in the 1990s, when coffee shop culture was all the rage and Friends was set in Central Perk, Starbucks capitalized by pursuing a corporate vision borrowed from sociology.

The cafe would aim to be a “third place,” after home and work, that would foster connection and community, and drive the value of the whole enterprise. Just selling coffee at your coffee shop was like just doing work at the office. It is a waste of space. You should also get people to eat there, think there, meet there, reflect there, hang out there, live there.

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This is almost exactly the pitch some of Canada’s big office employers and landlords give for the new office of the post-pandemic future.

Tesciuba of Hines, for example, offers the image of an office worker on a hybrid attendance policy considering whether to go in to the office on any given morning, perhaps wondering why he should bother if he can work just as well at home. In Tesciuba’s vision, the answer would no longer be “because them’s the rules.” It would be because the office is a place of many and diverse attractions, from more efficiently collaborative work to lunch and exercise, drinks and parties, friendships and romances. Office workers can escape the drudgery of home into an urban universe of possibility, dressed up for the occasion in ironed shirts and leather soled shoes. The office is theatre, too. People want to see and be seen.

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The idea is that the post-pandemic office should offer many things, not just a desk, a restroom, a printer and a nearby reasonably priced egg salad on rye.

Like Starbucks’s “third place” goal, this vision is a reaction to sociological research showing that, at the very least, people need some convincing about all this “back to the office” business.

“There’s a sense that the workplace has profoundly and irrevocably changed,” said John Wright, executive vice president of Maru Public Opinion, in a recent presentation to the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board. “While 57 per cent say they would be comfortable returning, only 17 per cent are fully good with that now.”

In his survey of almost 800 office workers in the Toronto area who were posted to their home to work during the pandemic, four out of five said their work situation will not return to the way it was. This is not some vain or selfish declaration of intent, but a reflection of where people are today. Well over half said that, given all the adaptation that has already been required by the pandemic, it would be “very difficult” to return to the office full time if that was the order. Nearly 40 per cent said such an order would get them looking for another job, and 24 per cent said they would simply quit.

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The office has already changed. Remnants of an office culture that demanded 40-hour weeks in the same desk, like staplers or desk phones, appear today like archeological discoveries. Paper files that you have not consulted in two years have proven that you just don’t need them anymore. Your kids do not look like they do in those pictures anymore. You probably shouldn’t risk that Advil or that gum. The old office is a museum.

In the 1980s, George Mazzei, former editor of Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine, published The New Office Etiquette. Today, it might as well be Jane Austen. It is comprehensible, but it is about a different world of different social manners. It also offers a revealing perspective on just how much the etiquette, even the purpose of the office has changed.

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In Mazzei’s view, for example, it is “rudeness in the extreme to drop in on someone unannounced at his office and have the receptionist call through.”

Today, that sort of impromptu get together is literally designed into the infrastructure. CIBC Square explicitly aims for something closer to hotel lobby than airport terminal.

Another outdated view is not thinking of your office space as your own: “We all have to share work space. That is the nature of a company, of a working area. The only thing that endures there is the work itself; the workers are transitory,” Mazzei wrote. “It is never a good idea to view an office as being your own, even though you may decorate it and make it as personal a statement as you can…. The only thing to remember is this: Don’t expend all your creative energies trying to get comfortable.”

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That advice is so 1980s it’s got shoulder pads. It just does not work that way anymore. Workers are transitory? Don’t get comfortable? That vision is as stale as a Rolodex.

This is the era of the employee. As Vuicic put it, they are “in the driver’s seat.” That is why CIBC Square does not have a sparse gym in the basement, lit like a bus station, but a fitness centre with towel service and a view of the city skyline, soon to be dominated by its partner tower. It looks like proof the office is here to stay, even if it has to change.

It is possible to overstate the cultural significance of a few amenities. This is downtown Toronto real estate, after all. At this price point it should be nice. But the amenities at CIBC make a novel pitch of a new way of work life, from the 35th floor tenants-only lounge with a view of the Toronto Islands to the private park. What’s that you say? Office towers don’t come with parks? That’s pre-pandemic thinking right there.

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Post-pandemic, CIBC Square has its own park, artfully landscaped overtop the railway tracks, publicly accessible but privately owned and controlled, with plans for both a winter skating loop and summer garden parties. You know, summer garden parties at the office, just like old times.

This new hospitality-heavy vision of the modern office might not last. Real estate trends eventually turn around. Starbucks tried sticking with its “third place” vision at the beginning of the pandemic, but moved away from it with delivery and drive-thru.

Offices, likewise, might slip back into the old ways of just being offices, mere arrangements of desks, and some things about work life might never change. Going back to the office after a two-year pandemic is going back to the future. It feels familiar, but you’ve never done it before.

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