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From Pivot Magazine

‘To mandate a return, or not to mandate? That is the question.’

FCPA Pamela Steer, CPA Canada’s president and CEO, on how companies can manage a successful return to the office

Manager and employees listening to new project ideas during a meetingWorkplaces that do not mandate a full return to the office can benefit from prioritizing a hybrid environment (Getty Images/fotostorm)

We’re coming up on the three-year anniversary of the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, and one of the big questions that has tickled our collective sense of curiosity is the future of the office. Pivot itself has tackled this topic at length throughout the pandemic but predicting a post-COVID future while COVID was still raging proved to be, at best, an intellectual exercise. Starting mainly in the fall, we began to see real movement in a gradual return to “normal” and what’s become clear to me is that this transition is showing the true stripes of certain companies and certain leaders.

To mandate a return, or not to mandate? That is the question. The idea of trying to bring back the old normal is a non-starter—reality and expectations have changed. At CPA Canada, we have adopted a hybrid environment and rather than mandate a return to the office, we have worked team-by-team to truly grow and tailor our approach and better prepare us for the future. We recognize what has worked in the past three years, but we also acknowledge the importance of being together. Taking this team-based approach and not being held back by the old ways is, to me, common sense.

For some teams, frequent in-person collaboration is necessary or absolutely required, but for others a chore is a chore, and issuing a blanket mandate for a full return, when there is no explicitly clear reason to do so, will do nothing but engender malaise, or worse, anger. There is no playbook for what we’re about to embark on in 2023, but the companies that succeed will be the leaders of tomorrow’s economy and society. While I don’t believe in mandates to return to the way things were, it is folly to think that things should stay the same as they’ve been for the past three years—a time when we were combatting a global crisis. The pandemic proved that remote work can work, in many professions. It also proved that the way we were doing things can be upended and that, most importantly, we are resilient creatures.

Pamela Steer at CPA Canada’s office in Toronto FCPA Pamela Steer, president and CEO of CPA Canada

But—and there is always a “but”—while we survived, it cannot be argued that we thrived during this time. Not as a society, nor as individual organizations. Creative brainstorming and problem-solving via Hollywood Squares on our laptops is at best suboptimal and at worst actively damaging. You cannot properly mentor, train and prepare new employees through awkward Zoom calls—any parent or teacher can attest that digital learning does not compare to in-person. The difficult conversations that leaders must have from time to time require a certain level of tact and humility that cannot be properly conveyed through stilted video calls dotted with “You’re on mute” and “I think I’m frozen.” Heck, even the basic cadence and subtleties of conversation are missing; letting a moment land and emphasizing for effect for instance. They can be approximated, but not replaced.

Beyond the downsides, there are undeniable benefits to bringing teams together. Those magical collisions that spark ideas and conversations that would never happen without face-to-face contact. These will no doubt be increasingly more common in workplaces that do not mandate full return to the office, but prioritize a hybrid environment that sharpens employees’ anticipation for the office and mutes the dread some may have felt when faced with a week’s worth of crowded, gridlocked commutes and eating leftovers at your desk for lunch.

Recently, I welcomed the new members of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) to our Montreal office and introduced our staff to theirs. There was no agenda, just an opportunity to see the future of standards and CPA Canada in action. We were blown away by the experience, and the attendance! We had people driving in from Sherbrooke and other outlying communities and staying well past quitting time to strategize and socialize. One of our employees struck up a conversation with the Japanese member of the ISSB in their native tongue and the pure delight and cross-culture connection was heartwarming. It’s these types of anecdotes—and there are so many more—that illustrate the importance of being together.

Those creatively strategic meetings that help decide the next steps for the team are strengthened in person, but just as important are the pre- and post-meeting chats that anchor your relationships at work, and bolster understanding and camaraderie.

And it’s that last part that I worry about most: workplace culture. This has undeniably bottomed out over the past three years, and it is becoming more and more difficult to attract and, more importantly, retain the best talent. To do so, you need that workplace culture to entice and develop the right people to lead your organization into the future.

So, just because you can do something in an emergency, does not mean that you should continue afterwards—another nugget of common sense that sometimes gets lost in the discourse. We can take some of what we’ve learned over the past three years and combine it with what we’ve learned over the previous 50 to build a sustainable foundation for the future.

In the end, a CEO’s job is to prepare a company for what is to come, not to latch desperately onto the past or to what is comfortable. It is my goal to be that guide into the future at CPA Canada, and I urge other CPAs and business leaders to do the same.

THE WAY FORWARD

CPAs are entering a new era of work. Find out where the profession is heading, the tech skills needed, how early adopters planned their hybrid-work schedule and a list of on-the-go work essentials.

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