Range of flexibility offered with return to office

Will it be successful? What will be the challenges?

Range of flexibility offered with return to office

It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, employers and employees were contemplating a return to the office. That turned out to be premature as waves of the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Canada and around the world, hampering an anticipated “return to normal.”

But now, more than a year later, a return to the office does look likely for the thousands of workers who headed home in the spring of 2020.

How exactly that will roll out is a whole other matter. Despite months to plan, many employers are still trying to figure out what that return will look like. And it appears several are taking cues from the pandemic, along with listening to employees, in offering flexible approaches.

Take, for example, GSoft, a Montreal company that has adopted a completely flexible employment model for its 265 employees.

“We give 100 per cent flexibility and freedom. It means that if you never want to show up to the office, it’s entirely possible; and if you want to be 100 per cent of the time in the office, it’s 100 per cent possible,” says Kahina Ouerdane, chief people officer.

The company has also said to workers that they can work abroad up to 150 days per year.

“We’re in a context where it’s ‘You decide.’ If every morning you want to show up to the office, you just book a space online, you fill out your COVID questionnaire, and then you show up at the office,” says Ouerdane. “People are responding very positively; it’s even a big sales argument these days on the recruitment side, which is a luxury in the context of the war on talent that we’re all experiencing.”

Or then there’s Sun Life, which says staff will be allowed to choose when and where to work. Most of the company’s 12,000 workers in Canada will be on a "flexible" work arrangement, where they will not be required to work from the office any minimum or maximum number of days.

Instead, they can choose where they work at any given time based on the activities they need to complete, guided by client and business needs.

"The future of work at Sun Life is about flexibility and choice, empowering people to optimize their work and personal priorities," says Kevin Strain, president and incoming CEO of Sun Life. "Our employees have continued to be there for clients throughout the pandemic... Retaining flexibility allows employees to use business and client needs as a guide to help them determine where they work."

And how about tobacco and vaping company JTI, which is allowing employees to work up to 50 per cent of their time per month away from the office. They can also benefit from flexible core hours and work up to 10 days abroad.

"Like most people working today, and even before the pandemic hit, achieving more of a work-life balance has been a key priority for our employees. Flexible working and the ability to work abroad for up to 10 days per year are the latest examples of measures to help every employee feel empowered to strike that balance. Performance and outcomes are what matter here, not hours spent in the office," says Howard Parks, senior vice president of people and culture at JTI.

While all these approaches make flexibility a priority, they’re also taking quite different approaches – there is no one template being adopted with the return to the office. And that probably makes sense, as every workplace is different when it comes to its products, services, staff and culture.

But what remains to be seen is how this grand experiment will go. Will it be successful? What will be the challenges? What tweaks will be made? Will it lead to improved workplaces and happier employees?

Of most interest to me: How long will this last? Are employers riding a wave of sentiment for flexibility, hoping it will end in a year or so and they can go back to the 9-to-5 routine? Or do they truly believe this is the best route forward?

Only time will tell, but it should make for a fascinating chapter for HR.

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