Even as signs emerge that the labour market is starting to shift in employers’ favour, employee attraction, retention and engagement remain top priorities.

During Benefits Canada’s inaugural Future of Work Summit in October, a panel of employers, insurers and academics weighed in on the results of Benefits Canada’s 2023 Future of Work Survey.

Almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of employers said maintaining employee engagement was a top HR focus, followed by employee retention and attraction (56 and 55 per cent, respectively). Other important priorities included maintaining workplace culture (47 per cent), filling a skills gap (37 per cent) and developing social connections (20 per cent).

Read: Download a copy of Benefits Canada‘s 2023 Future of Work Survey report

Those priorities square with what employees are looking for. Among employee respondents, 87 per cent were still with the same employer as 12 months ago. Those who changed employers or were actively looking for a new job cited a negative workplace culture or issues with leadership, lack of appreciation and recognition, stagnant compensation, or uncompetitive employee benefits as their top reasons.

Heidi Weigand, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, said it’s no surprise employers are seeking to maintain employee engagement and workplace culture since the return to office is challenging some social dynamics.

People who could previously step away from their laptops while working remotely and get some mental distance from colleagues at times of disagreement are now sharing the same work space again. “Now we have conflict and we don’t have a place to resolve that conflict because we’re constantly in that same space as [the other person],” she said. “That’s a very big effect and it’s [happening] across all different sectors.”

Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and client insights at Telus Health, noted the organization’s mental-health index has found 40 per cent of working Canadians are much more sensitive to stress coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. In many cases, that manifests as a tendency to engage in conflict.

Read: Employers continue to highlight mental-health supports, prioritize staff well-being

“A quarter of managers are saying, within the last year, they’ve observed significant conflict in their teams,” she said, noting part of the strain is coming from higher work expectations and employees seeing a decline in their own productivity. “It impacts people’s experience in the workplace. It’s extremely important that managers are equipped on how to intervene and deal with those conflicts and not exacerbate them.”

The 2023 Future of Work Survey also found nearly all employers are enhancing their attraction and retention efforts by improving their benefits plans, a 25 per cent increase from the year prior. Other employer initiatives included employee training, salary bumps and retention bonuses, paid sabbaticals and vacation and retirement savings plans.

Andrejka Massicotte, head of group benefits at RBC Insurance, noted enhancing benefits plans to address employees’ needs also has a positive impact on engagement and overall well-being.

With many Canadians feeling financially stretched amid high interest rates and inflation, Alex Snelling, chief people officer at McDonald’s Canada, said he believes benefits plans will make the difference in the job hunt. “The game is going to be an employer being an extension of security and somewhere that people know they can go for support.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives should also be part of employers’ attraction and retention strategies, said Weigand. While most employers that responded to the survey said they have a DEI strategy, it was not among their top HR priorities. “Gen Z, in particular, is looking for that. If they can’t see it in the company’s website, the hiring process and the messaging, they’re likely to turn and go in a different direction.”

Read: Survey finds 40% of Canadian gen Z employees at a mental-health ‘breaking point’

The session also covered the future of the workplace, with the survey finding a hybrid work arrangement is the most common among employers, at 48 per cent, though 37 per cent said they plan to bring almost all staff back to the office — a significant increase from 16 per cent in 2022. Just 13 per cent said they’re planning a fully virtual set-up. But employers’ plans aren’t sitting well with all employees: 38 per cent of employees currently working in an office or who’ll be soon said they’re reluctant to return.

Karin Adams, vice-president of talent and total rewards at TMX Group Ltd., said more than half of the company’s workforce is now working two or three days at the office, a third are fully remote and the remainder are in the office at least four days a week. “What is really critical for each organization is to establish their philosophy. I think what creates the rub for staff is when they don’t really understand what the supporting rationale is.”

That rationale could be collaboration and social connection, something employers and employees agreed is critical to a successful hybrid workplace, according to the survey. Some employees working remotely also noted they felt less connected to their colleagues, experienced less knowledge transfers and saw a decrease in cross-team collaboration.

Read: TMX Group awarded for mobilizing to support staff well-being during coronavirus

Adams cited the benefits of in-office team days for team-building and collaboration. To build connection and workplace culture, TMX also hosts employee social events, charitable days and company teams like its cycling club and cricket club. “If you give employees some space and resources to connect on what matters to them and create their own communities of interest, we’ve found that’s actually . . . drawn them to the office.”

Michael Weeks, senior leader of human resources at Amazon Canada, said the company provides funding for its network of employee resource groups and social activities such as trivia events, picnics and its dogs at work program. The company also redesigned its office spaces with team neighbourhoods that have a mix of individual work spaces and collaborative areas. Its new Vancouver space also has basketball courts and dog parks in the sky.

In the survey, 71 per cent of employee respondents expressed concerns about being a remote or hybrid worker, including not feeling connected to their employer or colleagues (31 per cent), not receiving the same benefits or perks (19 per cent), not being promoted as quickly (18 per cent), receiving fewer salary increases (17 per cent) and not receiving interesting or challenging work (13 per cent).

Read: Amazon expanding ‘Dogs at Work’ program to Canada, easing employees’ return to workplace

Amazon began including employees’ work styles in their profiles within the company’s HR system, said Weeks. During the company’s performance evaluation cycle, at which point it hands out salary bumps and bonuses, his team looks at work styles and conducts analyses to see if there were any unintended biases. It found similar outcomes regardless of work style.

Ultimately, employees may need time and support to adjust to the new way of working, given the renewed work-life balance many employees established while working from home, said Carlee Bartholomew, regional vice-president of group insurance at RBC Insurance. To help them manage the transition, she suggested employers make sure workers are aware of mental health and wellness tools, such as their employee assistance programs, coverage for mental-health practitioners, digitally delivered health care and employee wellness programs.

Read more coverage of the 2023 Future of Work Summit.