The pandemic has forced companies to make some bold decisions to move employees out of the office space for good and to work permanently from home. Big banks and tech companies have been on this journey for years; but news this week that Shopify was going to abandon their new 254,000 sq/ft Toronto office for a full work-from-home plan has ignited discussion on the future of the work place. As a leader within the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation for the past nine years as my organization moved 1,700 people through a workplace transformation, my advice for companies looking to shut office doors forever is ‘proceed with caution’.
Imprudent decisions for short-term gain without carefully considering the long-term pains reminds me of the expression ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ The limited experience of the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for abandoning the workplace altogether can have unintended consequences.
We know that remote work is a great alternative when in-person interaction is not feasible. However, the permanent shift should be determined by the business model. What works for us may not work for you.
In the fall of 2012, we made the bold statement: by 2016, three in 10 employees will have some form of Alternate Work Arrangement (AWA). We began the journey to Workplace 2.0, the Reinvention of People, Processes and Technology by updating our policies, creating new processes and improving our technology by moving all of our infrastructure to the Cloud. After seven years of investment, our bold decisions paid off: three in 10 employees were working from home and we reduced our footprint by 30%.
The challenges we faced in attaining these objectives prepared our organization for today’s pandemic, where we were forced to shift 99% of employees to work from home in three days. It was made even more seamless because of the resilience of our workforce and our investments in technology.
Each organization has their reasons for shutting their doors based on a few months of remote work: for financial reasons, employee desires, and the way that we work is different. We’ve investigated all of these reasons. Over the past seven years, we’ve embraced the movement to remote work and learned six key lessons that suggest a need for a hybrid approach:
- A mix of AWA and working in the office is needed to maintain team culture and camaraderie
Being social is in our human nature. Whether it be the watercooler talk or having coffees with your coworkers, it matters. It counts towards culture-building and the amount of big and small learning that can happen organically.
Being an agile organization is key to our transformational success. Being agile can certainly be done remotely but we’ve learned, not 100% of the time. Body language, User Acceptance Testing, and daily scrums are more efficient and effective with in-person engagement.
- Training, feedback and growth
We know that employees thrive with in-person engagement, particularly providing and receiving constructive feedback. Very transparent information exchange is important whether it’s done virtually or in-person.
- Community presence
In our business, presence within the communities we serve is critical. So, while we’ve adapted to our new working environment, we determined there is still a need to maintain a presence across the province to best serve our customers and to understand the communities that we serve.
- Mental health and wellness
Working from home can blur lines between personal and work life. Creating a mental and physical separation from personal and work life is important for overall mental health and wellness.
Management psychologist Dr. Anuradha Chawla recently joined 1,700 of our employees for a virtual meeting and said “equipping people to work from home isn’t just a matter of setting them up with a computer…How do you equip people to deal with the mental shift that needs to happen?” It is important for organizations to think about what change management efforts there needs to be.
We know that there are employees that will go above and beyond no matter where they work. Others may thrive better in the workplace and require in-person support to grow professionally. Now more than ever, trust between leaders and employees is essential.
In closing, there are valid reasons to move your business to a more nimble operation, one that relies heavily on a work-from home atmosphere. My experience tells me each business will make the best choice for their footprint, their stakeholder and their employee. But there remains valid reasons to keep the workplace in your future business plans
Let this pandemic be the catalyst and not the inhibitor. Whatever you choose to do, proceed with caution.
Nicole McNeill is President and Chief Administrative Officer of the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation.