Canadian corporations are taking their human-resources policies into previously unthinkable directions as they look to a future when COVID-19 recedes.

By Nicolas Van Praet - Special to the Globe and Mail* - June, 2021 

Canadian corporations are taking their human-resources policies into previously unthinkable directions as they look to a future when COVID-19 recedes.
 
Lightspeed POS Inc. LSPD-T -1.05%decrease is among several companies nationwide making significant changes to their strategies on compensation, benefits and recruiting. The Montreal-based software company introduced a new policy in recent weeks offering unlimited vacation to employees and allowing them to work from anywhere, betting nevertheless that most will return to the physical space they were forced to abandon overnight.
 
“I do think that coming back to the office is going to be a big part of people feeling attached to the company and a feeling of belonging,” Lightspeed chief executive officer Dax Dasilva said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. “There is a magic being together.”
 
As the pace of vaccination picks up in Canada in the weeks ahead and local economies reopen in tandem with a loosening of public-health restrictions, business leaders and human-resources specialists say the work world will experience a reset. In some cases, what emerges will be unrecognizable, as traditional notions of where to work and when to take time off are wiped out to make way for new realities.
 
At Lightspeed, executives surveyed employees about what they wanted in a new human-resources policy and 82 per cent of them said they wanted to come back to the office with the flexibility of working remotely when they choose. Mr. Dasilva said he’s not surprised by the result – both because the company’s business is helping retailers and hospitality providers facilitate customer interactions and also because Lightspeed’s headquarters and other offices have become what he calls “meaningful places.”
 
Lightspeed’s head office is in the Gare Viger, an old French château originally built for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The company occupies six floors of the building and announced this month that it will double its office space in the château as part of real estate company Jesta Group’s development of the site.
 
“We help physical gatherings happen with our business in retail, restaurant, in golf, and we also help those companies go digital,” Mr. Dasilva said. “So I don’t want a company that doesn’t gather itself.”
 
The CEO and his team are also offering unlimited vacation to employees. And although he acknowledges such a policy has sometimes had the opposite effect at other companies that have tried it – unlimited time off results in people taking less time off because there are no parameters and they feel guilty for not working – he said it can be successful with the right implementation.
 
The wider goal is to offer staff maximum flexibility at a time when the competition for talent has widened beyond Canada’s borders, Mr. Dasilva said.
 
“There are big U.S. companies in tech that are trying to entice the Canadian work force to work remotely for them. So that’s a challenge. That’s why we have to have compelling benefits and visionary working models,” he said. “[We want employees to conclude], ‘Ok, I do have a lot of choice here. I can sort of design the way that I’m thinking about planning my time.’”
 
Those sentiments are finding echoes at Waterloo, Ont.-based OpenText Corp., where CEO Mark Barrenechea said the coronavirus pandemic has created and accelerated a whole new set of expectations among staff. Gone are the days when a fridge stocked with beer and a foosball table would attract talent. Today, it’s all about physical freedom and health support.
 
“Employees want control. They want control of their space, they want control of their time,” Mr. Barrenechea said in an interview.
 
Beyond that flexibility, however, an employer has to properly articulate a culture – a purpose and how each employee fits into that, Mr. Barrenechea said. “Vagueness is kryptonite” for millennial workers in particular, he said. “Expectations today are that yes, I need to be paid well for what I do, but you also need to value the contribution. You need to value the role regardless of location.”
 
Mr. Barrenechea holds “all-hands” meetings for OpenText’s 14,000 employees in 40 countries every two weeks from his living room to engage staff and set that tone from the top. The company has hired a nutritionist and fitness guru. And it has created a $3-million relief fund to pay for health-rated employee expenses not covered by insurance.
 
Before the pandemic, roughly 90 per cent of OpenText employees worked in an office-based environment and 10 per cent worked remotely. The CEO said the company expects its new normal will be 80 per cent working a flexible arrangement of two to three days in the office, while 20 per cent will work remotely only.
 
“Most employers think an office is where you create culture and performance, right? It’s just wrong thinking,” Mr. Barrenechea said. “Many of our jobs are no longer tethered to an office so we can widen the recruiting. We can recruit from Sherbrooke to Quebec City up through the Maritimes because we no longer have that office-based mindset.”
 
If remote working has created new fertile ground for hiring, it has also flattened internal corporate hierarchies to some extent, said Mary Alice Vuicic, chief people officer for media company Thomson Reuters TRI-T -0.07%decrease
. And that in turn has facilitated creativity and where ideas come from, she said.
 
“You no longer have a separation of offices with people and, you know, who’s more senior versus not,” Ms. Vuicic said. “On a Zoom call or a Teams call, everybody is the same-sized square and it forces that almost democratization and that empowerment. Everybody has an equal voice.”
 
Reuters last year designated a full day as a mental-health day and essentially paused operations. This year, there will be two such days, Ms. Vuicic said. Over all, the company is attempting to create an environment that supports well-being, even when people are working. It now purposely defaults all of its meetings to end five or 15 minutes early from the normal scheduled end time as a “pens down” measure inciting people to take breaks. (Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the Thomson family holding company and controlling shareholder of Thomson Reuters, also owns The Globe and Mail.)
 
The health crisis has made workplace flexibility a reality, but not everyone has benefited equally from the change. A major swath of the labour force, notably working mothers, has been driven to the breaking point trying to balance home and work responsibilities. Roughly 100,000 women in Canada have quit their jobs since the pandemic started and aren’t looking for a new one, according to an analysis published by Royal Bank of Canada in March.
 
What’s needed now is a further rethink of traditional working hours and previous standards for qualification in order to get more people in the work force, says Agata Zasada, vice-president of people and culture at Vancouver-based Bananatag, a communications software company.
 
“We have this opportunity to really open the floodgates around talent,” Ms. Zasada said. “As an example, [at Bananatag] we’ve taken off education as one of the requirements for almost every job. ... I think we need to get creative around flexibility.”
 
One area where employees are pushing harder is on where they work, and that has expanded beyond the general orbit of their employer’s city to other provinces, says Stephanie Hollingshead, CEO of the HR Tech Group, a non-profit association for human-resources professionals in Canada’s tech sector. Roughly half of companies the association polled in a recent survey said they are willing to accommodate such requests, while almost a quarter said they are planning to allow remote work for other countries.
 
“It’s becoming more complex for the HR teams to manage that,” Ms. Hollingshead said. “But it’s being demanded. Talent is being able to drive what they want. And [many of them] want to work partially remote or fully remote from some beautiful location.”
 
Aside from the tax implications, the shift in having more employees work farther away from the mother ship will have other consequences, Ms. Hollingshead said. “The day-to-day management of the team is challenging, too, when you’re not able to physically put eyeballs on people and see how they’re doing,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more use of technology tools. … People won’t like this, but [it means] a significant increase in meetings.”
 
As millions of workers recalibrate their lives in the months ahead to split their time between home and office, these new realities will collide with traditional ways of organizing and benchmarking employees, said Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner Group’s human-resource practice. Not only will employers have to figure out how to create hybrid models that work for their companies in terms of physical space layouts, work schedules and other logistics, they’ll also have to assess the broader ramifications on a company’s culture and objectives.
 
For example, Gartner data show while there is little performance difference, if any, between employees working remotely and those working at the office, managers say those coming into work are higher-performing, Mr. Kropp said. He said that has the potential to exacerbate gender inequality because women are more likely to say they want to work from home than men.
 
“You put that together and what you see is potential significant backsliding on progress that we’ve made on closing gender wage gaps,” Mr. Kropp said. “Because managers become more biased to the people that they see in the office, which are more likely to be men than women.”
 
Another big question being debated among human-resources professionals is tied to cost-of-living adjustments: Should you pay less to employees who work remotely in places where the cost of living is less than that of the city to which their job is tied? Many companies are choosing not to cut the pay of these employees (which could expose them to reputational damage) but rather to slow down any raises they will get over time, Mr. Kropp said.
 
“We’ve gone through in the last 14 months the biggest experiment in changing work that we’ve ever had,” Mr. Kropp concluded. “But what we’re going to experience across the next 14 months is actually going to be even more disruptive and a bigger shift and a bigger change.”
 

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About the Author

*Nicolas Van Praet was born in Antwerp, Belgium and he came to Canada when he was five. He grew up in Edmonton during the glory years of the Oilers before heading out East to pursue university studies. He started his career in daily journalism at the Montreal Gazette, doing a stint as a political reporter in Quebec’s National Assembly among other assignments. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2014 after eight years at the National Post. A father of two spirited girls, he is an over-animated parent at their weekly soccer games.

Photo Credit

Image by Christine Muschi from The Globe and Mail

Photo Description

Dax Dasilva CEO of Lightspeed. The Montreal-based tech firm introduced a new policy in recent weeks offering unlimited vacation to employees and allowing them to work from anywhere.

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