March 16, 2020 started off as business as usual for most Edmonton professionals. This includes NIRIX, IT experts delivering technology and digital workspace innovation for businesses. Since its 2001 launch, it’s safe to say president and CEO Steven Hsu knows exactly how essential technology is when challenges arise.
“When restrictions came in [that day], I told my staff to go home,” he recalls. “Our entire operation – from phones, to accounting, sales, purchasing, datacenter operation, product development, workflow and technical support – everything switched to online within three hours. We haven’t been in office mode since then. We support our entire client base of about 7,000 users, all from home.”
In just over a year, the structure and environment under which the majority of professional businesses in Edmonton are operating has completely transformed. Many people are still working remotely and with increased flexibility. Some say the change was inevitable, with COVID merely accelerating it. So, how have corporations adapted, and will they ever return to the traditional office model?
Deanne Beis, partner and founder at Tenfold HR Solutions saw first-hand that those prepared to work remotely found the disruption minimal. She and her team were already set up to be mobile, using laptops, video calls, and Teams to collaborate with each other, support and meet with clients both onsite and remotely, as well as meeting in coworking space a couple days each week. “Other than not being able to go in and see each other in the coworking space, the shift to working from home was of minimal impact for us,” says Beis.
At Edmonton-based recruitment consulting agency Svensen Neighbour Recruiting, partner Shannon Neighbour saw swift change all around her. Much of her business had been done in-person. “It felt very disruptive in the workplace at first. Everyone went home and companies quickly learned how to collaborate even though no one was in the same space together,” she says. “Now that we’ve been doing this virtually, we’ve realized how much easier it is. It’s a good long-term solution we may not have thought of, but we were forced to think of it. So, here we are.”
As these professionals navigated their businesses and supported client organizations through over a year of pandemic disruption, they’ve each gained a unique view into the ways businesses are coping and moving forward. The learnings are many; the impacts, sure to be long lasting.
The pandemic’s sudden disruption pushed even the most skeptical organizations to give working from home and flex time a try. Successful transitions depended on adapting quickly and planning is critical. “This includes having good business continuity planning in place for technology,” says Beis. “If people weren’t already using video technology and didn’t have employees set up with laptops, if everyone was on a desktop, that was a huge problem in the beginning.”
Working from home is more about the individual’s perspective and nature of their role than the whole company. “Some who are more introvertive and their work is not as collaborative, they’ve loved working from home,” says Beis. “Others have a higher need to see people throughout the day. They’ve found working from home really hard and can’t wait to get back to the office.”
Prior to the pandemic Hsu himself was considering flex time and remote work for his staff. The pandemic’s push meant businesses like NIRIX had to evaluate work-from-home policies and will likely continue to contemplate the ways they might manage their workforce going forward. He says flexibility for staff will continue to be important, and that businesses may also reduce their physical office footprint and its associated costs. “I’ve gone through an entire year working with my staff from home,” he says. “I feel confident, and I trust that they are working. In fact, I’ve actually found they’re working even harder.”
He attributes this to a softening of the line between work and personal responsibilities. “Instead of stopping work right at four-thirty every day, they now have the accessibility to balance personal and work responsibilities at optimal times rather than having such a clear division of time and the rushing that often comes with it.”
Recognizing that people can be productive and efficient while working from home, many may not wish to return to the office in the traditional weekly schedule. Companies are now seeking out tools and practices to sustain a long-term competitive advantage in this new landscape.
A large part of NIRIX’s service is in cloud computing – third-party management, storage, and centralization of digital data in massive facilities rather than the in-office server room. They’ve since taken this further, building oneWorkspace. The platform surpasses traditional office setups where any and all applications such as Outlook, Office and Excel were installed locally on office desktops.
With oneWorkspace, users log in to a unified digital platform from any location, any time, and over any connection while the user experience is identical to working in the office. “Staff have access to everything they use for work. They’re no longer tied to working on that PC in the office,” says Hsu. “Wherever you are, and whichever device you choose to access it on – a Mac, a PC, an iPad or cell phone, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same experience. Your personal oneWorkspace truly roams with you.”
Should the work-from-home trend continue, Beis says companies will look to monitor and measure productivity. From her perspective, while companies were not micromanaging employees, owners still desire a sense of productivity. “There are more cloud-based applications available for this these days,” she says. “We’re lucky that we’re living in an age where there are lots of options available that aren’t onerous and cumbersome.”
Hsu agrees that employers hesitant to move towards this model prior to the pandemic had productivity concerns. “They’re looking for ways to ensure people are productive and on schedule,” he says, adding that productivity tracking is a two-sided matter between measuring efficiency for the business and respecting employee privacy. “Our platform offers productivity tracking through an optional feature. When it’s enabled, it can track things like how much time they spend on email, on browsing, or on an application that’s used in their industry every day.”
In light of all these learnings, the biggest disruption may be yet to come as businesses determine what the future of their work structures, processes and policies will look like. Should the pandemic eventually ease off Edmonton’s professionals, Neighbour says there will be no light switch that sees everyone back in the office as before.
Many may not wish to return to the office in the traditional weekly schedule. Central to building effective teams is implementing strong HR policies and parameters that address how time is divided between collaboration and working alone. “But we also need to find a way to remind people this is a job,” says Neighbour. “A light has really been shone on how we put these systems in place so people can be productive and successful in their job no matter where they’re working from.”
This includes planning for people to continue to work from home. “How can we support the person who now wants more flexibility in their schedule, maybe someone we’ve hired who isn’t local, but we want to keep them on our team?” says Neighbour. “Organizations, HR departments and senior leaders will have to start thinking about what the path forward looks like.”
NIRIX will keep their physical office, recognizing that certain workflows are improved with members physically present together. “I feel, and I think my staff feels the same, that physical communication [and] team building is not the same without that physical presence,” says Hsu. “Now, the benefit is that I know how my team works. If they want to work from home [or remotely] they have that flexibility and they have my trust.”
There is much for professionals to celebrate as they navigate into year two of transformation. Beis commends the adaptability and flexibility people and corporate entities exhibited. “We all dug deep, we were able to really flex and adapt faster than I ever thought we’d be able to,” she says. “I’m not saying it was easy, but people’s resilience, the way they supported each other, the amount of care and attention taken to deal with situations and do what was best for each other was really encouraging.”