Axonify CEO Carol Leaman has a simple answer to the increasingly complex questions of when, where and how employees should be at work: “Whatever works for you, works for us.” Leaman, who heads up a 300-person Waterloo-based company that makes software for training and communicating with front-line workers, is a convert to the idea that flexibility and productivity go together.
“Four years ago, I would have said that people are distracted at home, but the opposite has proven to be true,” she says. “I love working from home, and if it means life is easier for people then it’s not going away.”
Recent office-occupancy statistics point to the enduring appeal of working from home. While business districts are not the ghost towns they were in the darkest days of the pandemic, data from Google’s Mobility Report shows foot traffic is still down 38 percent in Toronto workplaces and transit use is down 25 percent.
But with summer vacations mostly over, companies are once again stepping up efforts to get employees back into the office. Apple mandated its staff return in person at least three days a week after Labour Day. And both RBC and Scotiabank want to see more of their workers back at their desks. RBC chief executive Dave McKay recently told staff that “technology can’t replicate the energy, spontaneity, big ideas, true sense of belonging and fun” provided by an office.
Notably, most companies have stopped short of demanding that all employees work in the office full time. At least for the foreseeable future, tens of thousands of workers will continue to exist on the middle ground of hybrid working — neither fully in the office, nor fully remote, and without a complete set of rules and norms to guide them. Which raises a question: Over the long term, how can this new way of working be made to — well — work?
According to one study, 72 percent of businesses lack a strategy for adapting to hybrid working. That has resulted in workers frequently being frustrated or baffled by new arrangements. There are numerous stories of employees showing up at the office only to spend their entire day on video calls. And while many companies are adjusting the way they hold town halls and meetings to accommodate remote and in-person attendees, the results are often imperfect. Unless meetings are happening in rooms with specialized — and pricey — audio and visual equipment, remote participants are often reduced to disembodied heads floating on a laptop screen.
New working arrangements even complicate team-building events. To address that gap, a Toronto startup called Wavy, which raised $2.5 million this spring, is launching a “culture management platform” that promises to adapt bonding exercises like pasta making, painting and sound baths for a hybrid world. The firm says it has already worked with hundreds of companies, including Shopify, Deloitte and Wattpad, a fast-growing storytelling platform.
Jennifer Hargreaves, the founder and CEO of Tellent, a diversity recruitment organization, saw the disruptions caused by COVID as an opportunity for employers to rethink the workplace, embrace a huge culture shift and build something new from scratch. “But too many organizations merely tweaked the policies they already had,” she says.
At Axonify, Leaman and her team carefully considered how to build its corporate culture as work patterns shifted. Over the past two years, the company has been actively growing its staff and acquired two companies in Atlanta and Toronto — it needed to get it right.
“Creating a cohesive corporate culture is critical to any acquisition,” says Leaman. “We put tons of thought into how we did that for new people.”
Leaman says the company is working hard to create opportunities for workers to meet and foster strong working relationships wherever they are based. Its Waterloo headquarters is designed to be a flexible space with “hotel” desks for any staff to use. For those within commuting distance of Waterloo, it holds voluntary get-together events. And to help bring the whole company together, it runs a weekly 20-minute talk-show-style video broadcast just before lunch that includes a spot where an employee (who happened to have narrated the Disney Jungle Cruise ride in a previous job) interviews fellow workers as a way of getting to know everyone. It’s designed to be entertaining, focusing on things like pets, home renos, travel and celebrity meetings.
Leaman also has a 21st-century version of an open-door policy. “Anyone in the company has always been able to book time with me, and many people have continued to take advantage of that remotely with Zoom coffee meetings,” she says.
A challenge with hybrid working is that it deprives workers and bosses of one simple yardstick for judging performance — showing up. Who should be in the office, how often and when become much more nuanced decisions.
According to Harvard associate professor Prithwiraj Choudhury, there may be an optimal balance of office time to remote working. In a nine-week study, he found that employees who spent between 23 and 40 percent of their time in the office produced the most original work and were most satisfied.
Other studies have shown that certain groups that fared well in an office setting in the before times — often white men — are much keener to get back to their desks than others.
Anne-Marie Pham, the chief executive of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, believes it is difficult to generalize about who might prefer to work in the office or at home. But she says it’s important that companies don’t “intentionally or unintentionally create a systemic advantage for people who show up more in-person than remotely.”
While many companies quickly grasped that they needed to provide technology to support remote working — laptops with decent cameras, virtual private networks to keep data secure — they have been slower to adjust how they measure performance. Pham says new metrics are needed to measure people by the outcome and value of their work, and not how many hours they log in the office. She also highlights the importance of demonstrating acceptance of a “diversity of work styles” by celebrating the successes of various employees with different work arrangements.
Hargreaves says businesses should set clear expectations around when they want workers to be in, so employees don’t feel penalized or singled out for customizing their workweek. That means managers will likely have to accept that this might result in something that isn’t a traditional 40-hour work week.
Caitlin MacGregor, the CEO of Plum, a Waterloo-based company that provides a psychometric assessment platform used in recruitment, also stresses the value of data in helping managers and workers assess performance in remote settings.
MacGregor, whose own business is mostly remote, says companies can use data to better predict on-the-job success and examine patterns connecting performance, turnover and how to play to employee strengths.
“It’s the managers’ jobs to understand the humans they are responsible for,” she says. “‘Are you fulfilled? How do I support you? In remote environments, we don’t have the water-cooler moments where we learn who brings what skills to a team.”
Her advice to other companies is to use talent assessments as part of the recruitment and onboarding process for new hires, as well as for standardized, regular performance check-ins. This ensures “the right people are in the right seats to drive their organization forward” — whether that desk chair is in a home office or a corporate building.
“The companies that hold to the old ways of doing things — they’re going to lose their employees,” MacGregor says.