Firms need to be flexible in designing post-pandemic workplaces, biz panelist says

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Editor's Note

Each year, the Ottawa Business Journal, in partnership with Welch LLP and the Ottawa Board of Trade, survey hundreds of local business leaders on their confidence in the local economy, financial results and other issues. The results are contained in the 2021 Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey, which is available for download here.

Companies must be willing to experiment with different work models if they hope to thrive in the post-pandemic world, a panel of business leaders said Thursday during a wide-ranging discussion on the city’s economy. 

Many employees have become comfortable with working from home over the past 15 months, Nick Quain, vice-president of venture development at Invest Ottawa, said at the virtual launch of the 2021 Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey report. The theme of this year’s edition of the annual publication explores how Ottawa can build back better in a post-pandemic economy.

But at the same time, Quain added, many employees are itching to get back to the office and reconnect with their co-workers in person. Finding a happy balance that works for everyone will require a lot of “trial and error,” he explained, and the firms that are most willing to be flexible will ultimately be the biggest winners.

“A big part of it is listening and talking to your staff,” Quain said. “Keep having that conversation. Everyone has a theory … of what they think they want on the other side of this when they come out … but until you actually test it and live it, I think that you’ll see many businesses changing on the fly.” 

Julie Taggart, vice-president of leasing and operations at Taggart Realty Development, said the shift to remote work will even have ripple effects on how housing projects are designed in the future as developers try to cater to people who will be spending a lot more time at home.

More live-work-play communities

That could include incorporating more features such as “common spaces” in multi-unit buildings, where tenants can set up their own work areas as an alternative to being cooped up in their own apartments all day, she said.

“I think it’s also important that we create communities where we can live, work and play,” Taggart added. “People are probably going to be working closer to where they live if not from home.” 

Shopify director of product acceleration Anna Lambert suggested the explosion in e-commerce that has seen hundreds of thousands of new merchants join the Ottawa firm’s platform since early 2020 will continue even after the pandemic has abated.

“It’s a year and a half later and entrepreneurship is thriving more than ever,” Lambert said. “I think the lasting impact is going to be significant.”

But Quain also pointed out the accelerated shift toward all things remote is a double-edged sword for many local tech firms. 

War for talent

While the pandemic has boosted demand for products such as network troubleshooting software that caters to remote workers, Quain noted that the growing realization that employees can get the job done from anywhere means Ottawa companies now have to compete with high-paying firms from Silicon Valley and other tech hotspots for the best and brightest local talent.

“We’re resignation nation,” he said. “There’s a lot of movement of staff, and if they’re not happy, there's going to be other opportunities for them.

“With remote workforces, our local companies are competing against the world now. You’re seeing all sorts of people in tech being poached away by multinationals to work remotely from their home in Ottawa.”

Click here to read the full results of the 2021 Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey.