Home Month and Year September 2021 The Return to the Workplace

The Return to the Workplace

Workplace return plans require empathy, structural shifts and flexibility


As more Edmonton professionals head back to the workplace this fall, businesses are finding there’s no one way to roll out their plans. For leaders working to support teams and individuals through all this transformation, it’s all about understanding, structural shifts and flexibility.

Lucie Martineau, Director of People and Culture at Showbie, has seen incredible growth with the education-based app. “We’ve grown organically in team size over the years, always keeping headquarters based in Edmonton,” she says. “In March 2020 we had approximately 29 employees and our company culture was based around being in our office in that start-up vibe. When the pandemic hit, everyone went remote.”

Not surprisingly, Showbie experienced a surge in demand for their product given pandemic-related restrictions. That summer, they closed a Series A investment round and extensions for a total $12.5 million (CAD) with Vancouver’s Rhino Ventures. It’s allowed the team to grow globally to 90 international employees today.

“It’s changed the dynamic of what our team looks like and how we operate,” says Martineau.

At Optimum Talent’s Edmonton market office, managing director Tricia Mullen and her colleagues had the capability for flexible and remote work, but prior to the pandemic most executives worked at the office or out at client locations.

“I don’t know that people necessarily felt as comfortable taking advantage of the opportunity in the past,” says Mullen.

The integrated talent management company with offices across Canada was acquired by Gallagher in early 2020. Aside from the initial weeks of pandemic restrictions, Optimum Talent continued to have an executive presence in the office according to individual choice. Each employee’s comfort level continues to guide the process as more return to the office. “We care about our people and what they want,” says Mullen. “We also collaborate when it better meets the needs of our client.”

Jodi Edmunds, Director of Employee & Labour relations at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) remembers this adjustment period well. Approximately 2,200 academic, non-academic, management and other staff typically worked in-person on NAIT’s various campuses prior to the pandemic. “The pandemic-related changes came as we were finishing up our term in April of that year so [we had] six weeks in instruction left,” says Edmunds. “We had a massive shift to move most of our instruction to an online format so instructors and students could complete the semester.”

Four months of solid summer planning allowed NAIT to build their traditional in-person learning into an online platform. This fall, they continue to work towards a distributed work model as the path to their future on-campus structure.

“This is going to be a gradual transition,” says Edmunds. “We’re not going to be flipping a switch where suddenly everyone who’s been working from home goes back to the way things were pre-pandemic this fall.”

One of the biggest challenges is meeting the need for collaboration and addressing clients’ and students’ in-person needs.

Showbie’s staff of IT professionals were capable to work remotely pre-pandemic but they preferred to work in-office. “Working collaboratively had really fed into our company culture and connected us. We didn’t know what a hybrid work environment might look like for us,” says Martineau.

Similarly, Optimum Talent has always been people and client-centric with a collaborative work structure. “This is more difficult to facilitate when you’re not hearing one another talk and listening to how people are dealing with day-to-day work challenges,” says Mullen. Working team-by-team and project-by-project, safety and client needs remain priorities.

At NAIT, avoiding in-person interaction made on-campus lab and shopwork challenging. It was completed on-campus depending on student and program requirements, and only when essential. “We instituted health and safety protocols according to the Alberta Government’s guidelines and [saw] much smaller numbers than our normal activity,” says Edmunds.

With unknowns around plans for young children who spent last year at home, employers understand there will be challenges reconfiguring people’s workdays. “We want to encourage them to do their job from whatever space works best for them and their families ­– whether it’s at home, the office or even wanting some workdays from vacation, that works for us,” says Martineau. “This has been very well received.”

Optimum Talent conducted in-house training to reinforce the importance in mindfulness around what others might be going through. “Your reality may not be everyone’s reality,” says Mullen. “You may be extremely comfortable coming back into the office. Others may be taking care of a medically fragile person, perhaps they rely on public transit to get to and from work, or they may have mental health reasons that make it tougher to come into work.”

NAIT put extra promotion into their employee family assistance supports and their headversity mental health wellness app. “This is a resiliency tool and phone app with education for staff and students to remain aware of their wellness and energy management,” says Edmunds. “We’ve had really good uptake of the headversity app amongst our staff.”

Having outgrown their workspace just prior to the pandemic, Showbie’s new office opened the second week of July with some restrictions and parameters implemented to test things out.

“We’ve created a hybrid setup with some permanent desk spots available to our team members and implemented a hotspot desk booking system for individuals and entire teams to collaborate,” says Martineau.

These flexible work structures may be here to stay. “Collaborative work feeds some people’s energy at work so team interactions at work are great for them,” says Martineau. “On the other end, maybe it’s rolling out of bed in pajamas and getting right to work at home; that’s amazing too. Some people don’t want to work in the office yet and that’s okay. It’s about being flexible for our team and what their needs are. We’re going with the flow for now.”

NAIT’s new distributed work model is also based on the evident success flexible work structures have achieved. “We’ll be using this model on a long-term basis. It has less to do with COVID-19 and more to do with the fact that people can do their work in non-traditional ways,” says Edmunds. “The pandemic accelerated the realization that we can all be productive and experience positive gains for the employees and the organization as a whole by working from different locations.”

Mullen encourages businesses to use their values and organizational mission as guidance. “For my personal team, they can dig in and work at home or come into the office for more collaboration,” she says. “I encourage them to be mindful and strategic of who’s in the office on which days so they can get the most out of those days. We make it fun, let people know it’s okay to feel anxious and that we look forward to seeing them again. We’re following the direction of our community of staff and clients.”