Colleagues having business meeting in office

What will our return to the workplace look like?

Canadian organizations are busy planning for the post-COVID era—and so far, everything is coming up flexible

Colleagues having business meeting in officeWhile organizations are exploring a hybrid work model, most expect that offices will remain key hubs for collaboration (Getty Images/Tetra Images)

As we slowly start to emerge from the pandemic, more and more organizations are focused squarely on a key question: What will the return to the workplace look like?

To get a sense of where plans are heading, we asked organizations large and small, in both the public and private sectors, where they stand on that question.

The answers might have differed in the details, but the overall theme was clear: hybrid is the way to go. In other words, some combination of remote work and time in the office is viewed as the best model to follow—at least for now.


How did organizations come to decide that a mixed approach is best? Mainly through the lessons of time, says Lauren Luchini, an office leasing broker with Cushman & Wakefield. “When the mass shift to remote work took place last year, some organizations—especially tech firms such as Shopify—began to see it as the be-all and end-all solution going forward,” she says. “But, as time went on, more and more people began to see the value in having a touchdown base. They also realized they wanted a delineation between work and the office.”

CPA Michael Kravshik, founder and CEO of LumiQ, agrees: “I think people tended to overemphasize the benefits of remote work and underemphasize the drawbacks.” 

Now, for Kravshik, like many others, the solution lies in a mixed approach that combines the flexibility of remote work with the collaborative advantages of an in-person environment. In fact, 55 per cent of the respondents to one Robert Half survey said they would like to see a hybrid model going forward.


As organizations in Canada consider their next moves, it’s worth looking at some of the strategies being taken in other countries that are farther ahead on their reopening journeys.

For example, BDO in the UK announced in May that it is planning to allow its 5,500 staff to choose where they want to work after the pandemic, based on where they are most productive. 

In a similar, yet slightly more “definitive” move, EY in the UK told staff in a May 24 announcement to expect to work from home two days a week—an arrangement that will be introduced once restrictions lift.

Some larger international corporations are also firming up plans. For example, the German headquarters of Porsche has already announced that it will be taking a 40-60 approach: In other words, employees will be expected to be in the office 40 per cent of the time, with 60 per cent at home. But, as Marc Piovesan, CFO of Porsche Cars Canada, explains, that 40 per cent will be measured on a monthly basis. “This means that in any given week, you may or may not be in the office at all,” he says.


Companies’ office leasing plans can be another indicator of future plans. As Luchini points out, the majority of organizations expect to reduce their office footprint by about 20 per cent. “With this model, you might have about 70 per cent of your staff in the office at any given time,” she says.

Luchini adds that leasing prospects have improved greatly since last year, when some companies thought they might get rid of the office altogether. Still, demand for space in Toronto is far lower than it was going into the pandemic, when vacancy rates were at sub two per cent. “Now, we’re at almost 10 per cent vacancy,” she says. “That being said, we’re seeing a lot of momentum from tenants who are starting to thinking about the future. And, when we come out of this, I think there’s going to be a real right sizing for all organizations.”


While most Canadian organizations are still collecting feedback from employees, they are nevertheless considering a variety of approaches. As Linda Blair, managing partner, Ontario and chief experience officer for Deloitte Canada, puts it: “There is no one-size- fits-all model. Each is adapting based on what makes sense for their business and their people.” Some examples:

  • LumiQ is looking at different possibilities but Kravshik expects it will end up with one to two days of remote work per week. 
  • Porsche Cars Canada is considering a number of possibilities, such as 3-2-1 model, where employees work from home three days a week and go into the office two days a week. As Piovesan explains, “One of those two days would be assigned in the sense that your department would be in the office; the second day would be flex.”
  • At the federal level, the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Digital Government have both received a mandate from the Prime Minister to work with public sector unions to explore options for increasing flexibility in employee work arrangements. But, for now, the continuing physical distancing requirements means that many public service employees will continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future. As Martin Potvin, spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat, points out, “Neither an announcement nor a fixed-date approach is being considered or planned.”   
  • EY Canada, like other organizations, hopes to see a hybrid model moving forward. It is also taking what it calls a “two-gear approach” that marries transition with transformation. “Gear one is all about transition and managing the risks associated with returning employees back to physical locations,” says FCPA Stephen Shea, managing partner, talent at EY Canada. “The second gear is about reimagining and transforming the way the organization will operate in a post-pandemic world.”
  • Deloitte Canada plans to adopt what it calls the Next Normal hybrid model, where people will have the choice to be at the office, at home, or at the client’s office. “They can be in person or virtual, depending on the kind of work they need to do,” says Blair. “We don’t see this as a fixed model, but something that we will continue to evolve as we learn more from our clients, our people and our communities.”


When the return does occur, the way people interact may well change considerably. One Robert Half survey showed, for example, that 56 per cent business professionals anticipate spending less time in common areas in the office and six in 10 will reconsider attending in-person business events (61 per cent) and travelling for business (59 per cent). Moreover, 40 per cent think it’s important to change the office layout. 

While these figures are likely to change as time goes by, organizations are already well on their way to planning their post-COVID workplaces. Hotelling is likely to become even more popular. At EY, for example, Shea calls it “a key enabler to a safe, staged return to full office capacity.” 

Most organizations expect that offices will remain key hubs for collaboration and, for that reason, Blair says Deloitte will “boost the amount of true collaboration space there.” She adds that the firm has already started to pilot new ways of working across the country as restrictions shift: “Access to new collaboration tools, new ways to set operating norms as a team and creating improved access to global expertise are a few examples of how we are evolving as we prepare for the future,” she says. 


Whatever form their return to the workplace may take, most organizations agree that, for now, wait and see is the only possible approach until restrictions are further lifted.

As Piovesan puts it, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic, it’s to be flexible and adapt when needed. We don’t want to bring in a policy that everyone thinks is written in stone, because they might make important decisions based on that policy. Then, come September, everything could change—and we all return to the office five days a week.”


Learn more about the leadership challenges brought on by the pandemic and how to build team spirit when working remotely. And find out how to succeed in the new reality by joining CPA Canada for the annual 2021 The One conference + Expo with its exciting virtual format and new speakers being added regularly.

Plus, be sure to check out Foresight: Reimagining the Profession to keep up to date on learnings emerging from CPA Canada’s strategic initiative to reshape the accounting profession.