June 1, 2021

Back to Work: Will our workplaces change to meet the future or will they return to the status quo?

What companies and workers are considering in a post-pandemic world

Should we shift headquarters to a thatched cabana on some Caribbean atoll? Then again — why not abolish a central workplace altogether and rent the occasional meeting room in mega-cities where key clients reside?

Depending on one’s job description and life stage, should employees have enough agency to decide whether they’re most productive in a home office or a traditional workplace? And is productivity the No. 1 rationale on every employer’s wish list?

If the current pace of vaccine rollouts continues, an estimated 75 per cent of all Canadians may be fully vaccinated by summer’s end, which is precisely why the return to some permutation of the traditional workplace is on everybody’s mind. The litany of issues, concerns and possibilities now facing those who have toiled remotely for the past year and a half heralds a sea change — one that’s welcome for some, but a confusingly complex nightmare for others.

In April, UCalgary Alumni News conducted an informal survey asking readers to respond to one question: What does your ideal workplace look like? Of the 159 responses, 121 chose a hybrid work environment, followed by an almost even split between full-time remote work (20 responses) and full-time work in a collaborative physical space that wasn’t your home office (18).

Although our sample size was too small to be statistically accurate, it does parallel the findings of Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey 2020 that discovered more than 60 per cent of younger generations would prefer to work remotely, citing that remote work creates a better work/life balance. Not so for everyone, as other surveys suggest loneliness and the lack of boundaries between home and work as prime reasons for people wanting to return to a collective physical space.

But a “workplace” is far more than just a physical space. Most work environments spawn a “culture” of sorts that begs the question — if you don’t return to a physical office, how do you replicate that culture in a never-ending game of Hollywood Squares?

This is the conundrum facing Benevity — the latest Calgary-based software darling to achieve “unicorn” status. Last year, it witnessed a massive hiring boom, growing from 500 to 700+ employees, accelerated by not only client needs and the pandemic, but also by racial equity and social justice issues. For Benevity, this has meant an abrupt swerve from an über-physical culture (hugs were commonplace at all-staff meetings) to a remote context.

<Sona Khosla, BA’00>

Chief Impact Officer at Benevity, Sona Khosla, BA’00, loves the fact she can take her dog to work at their mural-filled office space in Bridgeland. On average, you’ll find five to seven dogs in their work space on any given day.

“It certainly was a big concern for us,” says Benevity’s Chief Impact Officer, Sona Khosla, BA’00, “especially bringing on hundreds of new people, and the fact that so much of our strength is in the deep connection people feel with our mission, culture and each other. Very soon, however, that concern was replaced with a focus on how we could help our people continue to assist clients who were activating on emotionally charged issues like COVID and Black Lives Matter and not burning out in the new age of work/life blur.”

Benevity’s answer? It hired a mindfulness coach, added a new online mental-health program to employee benefits (as well as more access to psychotherapists), and introduced no-meetings Fridays, more flexible workhour options, and a powerful all-staff message from the founder Bryan de Lottinville and CEO, Kelly Schmitt, who repeatedly stated, “It’s OK to not be OK.”

The spike in use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and other video-conferencing systems is proof that necessity is the mother of invention. “But one of the challenges that currently face so many of our workplaces is that policies are driven by the average person — and we all know there is no such thing as the ‘average’ person,” points out Dr. Keith Dobson, PhD, a University of Calgary psychology professor.

Here’s the quandary: Do you cater to the extrovert who’s desperate to return to a collaborative workspace, or to the introvert who feels far more productive and less anxious working from home? And, perhaps most importantly, is there room to do both?

Time for the Great Rethink

For serial entrepreneur Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88, the value of working out of an office was changing, even before the pandemic. “COVID-19 just dramatically accelerated the trend, especially in the digital technology space,” says the founder and president of VizworX Inc.

<Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88>

For serial entrepreneur Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to rethink the nature of their downtown workplace

For LaFrenz, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to rethink the nature of the workplace and, in doing so, he’s had a flicker of a fantasy . . . could he combine work with his love of underwater photography and simply whisk HQ to the Caribbean? While there are a number of business and personal realities that still make this challenging to put into practice right now, it is a feasible option for the future. “What has become very apparent,” explains the 2020 Arch Award winner recipient for Alumni Service, “is that where people work and where they live is not as connected as it used to be. We have staff moving from Calgary to where they want to live, and we’re bringing on board new staff as far away as Brazil. Most people we’ve hired during the pandemic we’ve never physically met, and they are as productive and as much a part of our corporate culture as anyone else."

That shift to more mobility has led LaFrenz to ponder the future of offices. “Like people, where companies do business and where they have offices, and in particular their headquarters, has become less connected. Businesses have an increasing flexibility to move their HQ to other locations for a variety of reasons that include both direct business and personal benefits. Being born and bred in Calgary I have a lot of personal reasons to keep our HQ here of course, but if I am seeing these possibilities, I can guarantee that a lot of other organizations are not just seeing them, but also acting on them. Local governments need to understand this new reality and ensure that local conditions are conducive to attracting and retaining tech companies."

Although that Caribbean idyll may still be a few years away, LaFrenz sees the change in offices as permanent for VizworX. “While we will still have offices for specific business purposes, new offices will most likely be temporary shared spaces with most staff working most of the time from home.”

Dubbing the pandemic “The Great Pause,” architect Dustin Couzens, BComm’99, MArch’04, co-founder of Modern Office of Design + Architecture (MoDA), has used the past year to re-examine MoDA’s needs as well as those of their clients such as Attabotics, a Calgary-based robotics warehouse-fulfilment startup.

In fact, it was the ever-shifting landscape of employee needs that prompted MoDA to rip up the interior designs for Attabotics and start again. “Now, the new design is like a little city,” explains Couzens. “If people want to do their work in a coffee shop, a library, even a restaurant . . . we will have all those social amenities on-site.”

As for MoDA’s workplace needs, the plan is a return to the office in September when its new digs in the Beltline open. Part of its fresh design will include a boutique storefront coffee shop instead of a boardroom, which Couzens intends to use for client meetings. MoDA’s percentage of coffee-sale proceeds will go to a homeless shelter.

Psychological stressors

Perhaps more critical than the physical shifts of a return-to-work policy are the psychological ramifications; it’s these that are causing anxiety levels to spike. Prof. Dobson cites three main factors that contribute to anxiety: lack of predictability, controllability and salience. Where anxiety is typically a “forward-oriented emotion,” he says, depression tends to be a “past-oriented emotion,” which explains why, as we look toward our somewhat uncertain future workplace arrangements, anxiety rates are sitting at about 2.5 times compared to pre-pandemic.

While Dobson agrees there are groups of people who, given the option, would choose to work from home, he believes “the vast majority of people want the social contact that a traditional workplace provides. Most humans are social animals; our very identity is formed in how we communicate with others, in the language we use and the groups with which we identify. When social relations are perturbed, it causes mental health stress and strain. That said, the more choice and control people are given, the less anxiety they’ll experience.

“My prediction is that, given the option, most of us would like a blended scenario, but there is such a variety of issues amongst people’s needs, life-stage and job requirements . . . the transition is not going to be easy for a lot of people.”

Prepare for bumps

“It will be an adjustment to what our ‘normal’ has been this past year,” admits assistant concertmaster Donovan Seidle, BMus’99, when asked to predict the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s first performance. “In a typical year, we’d have 80 to 100 performances. Last year we had 20, and those did not involve the entire orchestra.

<Donovan Seidle, BMus’99>

Donovan Seidle, BMus’99, says the members of the CPO can hardly wait to perform at the Jack Singer Concert Hall again.

"It’s bound to take a bit of time to learn each other’s rhythms again, both literally and figurately, so returning to our workspace will take some getting used to,” explains the violinist. “But do we want to go back?  Absolutely, we’re performers . . . so we’re very excited! It’s hard to stay motivated with no upcoming concerts or practices to work toward.”

As for lasting changes, Seidle who, during the pandemic, developed his producing skills to include freelance livestream- and remote-producing, predicts that even when all 66 musicians return to the Jack Singer Concert Hall, the concerts will likely be videoed for online consumption. That will be the CPO’s hybrid model.

While some office environments may lend themselves more readily to remote work, other services, such as many of the programs offered by the Centre for Newcomers, have suffered enormously from the lack of face-to-face contact. From refugee and LGBTQ2S+ programs to men and women’s peer-support programs and parenting circles, “it’s just harder to build that connection where you trust each other when it’s virtual,” says Centre CEO Anila Lee Yuen, BSc’02.

<Anila Lee Yuen, BSc’02>

Anila Lee Yuen, BSc’02, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, wonders how their future workplace culture will be impacted if fewer people return to their traditional collaborative work space.

The Centre is poised to leave its space in Pacific Place Mall for a larger, 50,000-sq.-ft. facility down the street, in the building where Calgary’s original Ikea was located. Lee Yuen says its doors should open in September. Included in the new space is a 200-seat auditorium, a spiritual room, numerous small meeting rooms, fewer offices and scores of cubicles for its 160 staff.

“Just as we had settled on a design, COVID struck and made us question, who needs to be at the Centre every single day of the week?” Lee Yuen says. “But, if fewer people return to our workspace, how will that affect our workplace culture? How do you make someone feel valued and connected to their team if they work from home? With more meeting spaces, we feel there will be more collaboration with our community partners, but how will our own staff feel?”

When in doubt, just ask them, says Lee Yuen. Which is precisely why the Centre plans to launch an employee survey on the subject in the next few weeks.

“Choice and control are key,” adds Dr. Susan Boon, PhD, a UCalgary psychology professor who was part of a consortium of experts from 27 countries that examined how COVID-19 affected 10,000 people. “Work” was one of nine categories of “stressors” that were explored. Boon says what appeared repeatedly was that “many people found it stressful not to know whether employees would have the choice to work from home or whether they would be told to come into the office.

“One of the things about COVID,” says Boon, “is that people have lost so much control. Gaining back some control over our lives and where and how we work will make the difference.”