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

22/02/2024

Reprint of an article published by the Montr al Gazette on Apr. 11, 2022

Office Space Renovations 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?

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.

Despite high productivity levels while working from home, as shown in the U.K. and Canada, some experts worry about burnout as increased productivity can lead to more stress.

Working from home is more productive than going to the office, U.K. data shows.

Lying in a hospital bed and recovering from his heart attack, Jonathan Frostick posted a photo of himself to LinkedIn and resolved to change the way he was living and working. His post has since gone viral.

I'm not spending all day on zoom anymore': Heart attack prompts man's viral rules for living

The pandemic sparked a massive forced experiment, said Jonathan Pearce, executive vice president of leasing and development at Ivanho 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.

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.

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 Ivanho 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.

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.

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 Th
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