Banks lead the pack as companies finally, slowly, start bringing workers back to the office

As Ontario lifts more COVID-19 restrictions, Toronto’s employers are slowly welcoming workers back to the office — they expect many employees will continue to work remotely at least part-time.

Brian Rosen, president and CEO of commercial real estate and investment management firm Colliers Canada, said Omicron put the brakes on last fall’s gradual return to in-person working. But this time, companies don’t have to create a brand-new flexible work plan, which means they can bring employees back quicker in 2022, he said.

“We’re starting to see companies very, very eager to start getting people back in the office,” said Rosen.

The big banks tend to lead the pack in downtown Toronto, said Rosen, so when BMO announced it would start bringing some employees back in early February, that signaled a shift in the coming weeks.

Colliers itself has been open throughout most of the pandemic, as some workers have to be in person at least part of the time. The company has a full-fledged return-to-work strategy where some employees will have to work in person for a certain number of days, said Rosen, but he doesn’t think it will be put in place until late spring. In the meantime, the company is keeping its vaccine mandate and following provincial health guidelines, he said, while encouraging workers to come back to the office more often.

Soon, Toronto city buildings will be opening their doors again, heralding a potentially busier spring for the downtown core. And some financial district giants are stirring — BMO began bringing back more workers in early February, moving toward a hybrid plan in early April, Bloomberg reported.

And HSBC is beginning a phased reopening of its offices at the end of the month, with its corporate Toronto office waiting until March 14.

“Our offices have been set up for fully hybrid working and we expect that even once capacity restrictions are lifted, most employees will continue to work from home at least a few days a week,” said spokesperson Sharon Wilks, adding that the company’s vaccination policy will remain.

Insurance giant Sun Life plans to resume its voluntary office return pilot program, and expects to fully reopen later in 2022, although the company will continue offering flexibility to its employees, said spokesperson Nadine Jahangir Gerrard.

And at RBC, employees will be allowed to return over the coming weeks and months, depending on local restrictions, while many teams will transition to hybrid work arrangements, said a spokesperson.

Foot traffic downtown is increasing week over week, according to commercial real estate firm Avison Young, though it’s still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. Toronto’s downtown core has been particularly hard-hit by Omicron and previous waves of COVID-19, as many businesses in the financial district rely on in-person workers.

Elke Rubach, president of Rubach Wealth, said her employees have become accustomed to working remotely — and so have her clients.

For the foreseeable future, Rubach and her employees might have meetings in person every couple of weeks, but they aren’t rushing back to their downtown office full time.

Hybrid and remote work consultant Nola Simon said the intention of a company’s back-to-work strategy will make or break the plan’s success — there has to be a good reason for employees to come into the office.

“There’s no going back to 2019. Your culture has changed,” she said.

Ontario’s restrictions being lifted might make some companies more eager to return, while others might be more cautious, said Simon.

Shir Magen, CEO of HomeStars, said like many other employers, she cautiously reopened the office in the fall of 2021. While the business of around 160 employees was doing better than ever despite the remote shift, some of the younger employees were clearly struggling, said Magen.

Only 10 or 15 workers returned to the office part-time last fall, said Magen, and when Omicron hit, the office closed again.

Now, HomeStars will be reopening its office again on Monday, and this time Magen thinks more people will be coming in. Despite Ontario lifting many of its restrictions in the coming weeks, HomeStars employees will still be required to show proof of vaccination in order to enter the office, she added.

“I think people are itching to get back,” she said.

But Magen thinks the hybrid workplace is here to stay. Workers have come to enjoy the flexibility of being able to choose whether to work remotely each day, and the company has benefitted too, as Magen has been able to expand her hiring pool beyond Toronto and grow the company by dozens of people during the pandemic.

“I think employers have to be able to balance remotely and in person,” she said.


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