How Ottawa will emerge from COVID-19

Pandemic weighs down business outlook but sparks new opportunities for local economy
Ottawa skyline
Editor's Note

The Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey is a comprehensive annual research project that explores what’s ahead for the city’s economy based on surveys with hundreds of business leaders. Read their insights and understand the factors shaping business confidence in Ottawa, in this exclusive report.

Just a few months ago, Ottawa’s economy appeared unstoppable.

A booming tech industry, a healthy public sector and a wave of massive infrastructure projects made managing growth – attracting and retaining employees, for example – one of the top issues cited by many local organizations.

But that changed almost overnight this spring. The rapid spread of COVID-19 upended the plans and priorities of business leaders, many of whom were suddenly forced to establish remote workplaces, mitigate the impact of sharply declining revenues and rethink the relevancy of their products and services in a pandemic economy.

OBGS confidence thumbnailWith so much uncertainty, a sharp drop in local business confidence is unsurprising. But look behind the headline findings of the 2020 Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey and a more nuanced picture of Ottawa’s economy, containing signs of optimism and opportunities, emerges.

Challenges undoubtedly remain for many businesses – and entire industries. Half of all respondents predict business conditions will deteriorate further before starting to improve, and expectations of revenue and net income growth are down significantly from last year.

OBGS - New products to market thumbnailOn the other hand, large numbers of respondents say their top and bottom lines remain strong.  Meanwhile, many business leaders say they’re still planning to recruit new employees and are looking to unlock fresh opportunities by investing in new products and services.

Such signs of innovation and adaptation are evident around the city, says Jim McConnery, a partner at Welch LLP. 

“There’s lots of business development and a great entrepreneurial spirit all across Ottawa,” McConnery says. “There is optimism that the worst is behind us and now we’re all just looking to recover.”

The new workplace

As the wider economy reopens and businesses look to ramp up – or, in some cases, restart – their operations, many managers are re-examining their internal operations.

OBGS - Work from homeAfter being abruptly and unexpectedly forced to enter into a prolonged work-from-home experiment, many organizations are exploring whether to make remote work and other flexible arrangements a permanent feature, says McConnery.

“A lot of organizations have always had a setup where working remotely was feasible for employees, but perhaps not taken advantage of,” he says. “Nowadays, people are becoming comfortable with the notion that they can work remotely and still be productive.”

Such a shift is prompting changes in managerial mindsets. Roughly half of survey respondents say they’re giving employees more flexibility over their work schedules. A similar proportion have upgraded their communication tools to allow for more remote collaboration. 

Work from home

Many local businesses have also expedited their adoption of e-commerce, says Sueling Ching, president of the Ottawa Board of Trade. Indeed, more than a quarter of survey respondents say they’re putting a greater emphasis on e-commerce and online sales channels.

“We knew beforehand that our Ottawa-based businesses needed to level up in terms of digitization, and COVID has really accelerated that,” she adds. “This pandemic has revealed a lot of opportunities to make changes that were required anyways – let’s not lose the opportunity to do that.”

Securing the digital workplace

Technology such as cloud-based file storage, remote email access and video-conferencing plays a key role in enabling teams to collaborate and work from home. Many survey respondents said their employers had already adopted these tools prior to the pandemic, equipping them for the sudden shift for telework.

Securing those operations and their digital networks, however, was a seemingly lower priority. 

Secure login

More than half of respondents said they didn’t implement any new cybersecurity practices, a finding that Andrew Loschmann – the chief operating officer of Field Effect – says is unsurprising, but concerning. 

“We’re seeing businesses being forced into a new dynamic and they’re simply unprepared,” he says. “Cybersecurity is a foundational piece of business that is often overlooked because people think their firewall or virus scanner will fully protect them.”

OBGS - cyber attack thumbnailWhile many organizations were understandably focused on simply staying operational during the early days of the pandemic, more attention is being paid to digital security as the landscape stabilizes.

Half of respondents said they have implemented password managers and VPNs to protect their networks, which is a good first step towards safer work, says Loschmann. 

As businesses continue to understand the risks of employees using personal computers for work or the security limitations of cloud service providers, he says having a cybersecurity system will be paramount in protecting businesses – especially if remote work becomes the new norm.

“Visibility into what technology is on your network is only going to become more important,” he says, adding that Field Effect  saw an uptick in cyber-attacks this spring. “We understand that running a business is difficult and to add in cybersecurity on top of that can feel overwhelming. Just like other challenges in business, this is one that’s here to stay and we have to take it seriously.”

Ottawa’s re-emergence 

COVID-19 is making a lasting impact on both individual workplaces as well as the economy as a whole, creating new markets and increasing demand for some existing products and services.

Just as more organizations are thinking about their cybersecurity requirements, for example, others are rushing to purchase personal protective equipment and disinfectant cleaning services. Investors, meanwhile, see renewed opportunities in globally oriented tech firms developing medical tools and platforms enabling remote work.

“(Ottawa companies) are not micro players that don’t touch (international) markets – we’re embedded in so many things,” says Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay.

One of the strongest indicators of Ottawa’s resilience can be found in the responses to a question about how businesses plan to become more operationally sustainable. Despite all the financial challenges facing organizations, bringing new products and services to market were cited more frequently than cost-cutting and workforce reductions – a reflection, Tremblay says, of the community’s creativity and innovation.

“What we do in our region matters, both locally and globally,” he says. “The world needs Ottawa.”

Read the full 2020 Welch LLP Ottawa Business Growth Survey report by clicking on the cover below:

OBGS 2020 cover