City of Toronto pivoting to permanent hybrid work model

Being an office worker used to mean going to an office. Not anymore.

A new day has already dawned for many, including the City of Toronto’s 14,500 white-collar employees, who’ve been working at home since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March.

The quick switch to working from home wasn’t without some hiccups and skeptics at first, says Omo Akintan, the City’s chief people officer. But employees soon saw the advantages, with a whopping 95 per cent of the 5,733 staff who responded to a survey conducted this summer saying they want to continue working remotely at least one day per week post-pandemic.

Read: Head to head: Should remote working continue after the pandemic?

Leadership has listened. The human resources team was already years into testing and planning for a future where employees would be offered a mix of remote and in-office working options.

“The pandemic . . . really brought the buy-in across the organization because it’s forced our leaders to work remotely, so even our leaders who were not sure their teams could effectively work remotely have themselves effectively worked remotely with their teams,” says Akintan.

“And there was the survey . . . so we now know where our employees stand on it. . . . Our plan is bolder, while also ensuring that people have the resources they need and that remote work continues to be a part of our future state. We’re not going to transition to the way it used to be and then at some future point pivot again — we’re just going to try to ease ourselves in this scenario into our future state.”

Read: Remote working, distributed workforces could be part of new normal post-coronavirus

The permanent pivot will have many benefits for the City, she says, including: helping to attract and retain talent; supporting the environment — which is in line with organizational goals of being greener — since fewer people will be commuting daily; and drastically cutting the City’s office portfolio costs. It currently spends almost $116 million a year on more than 55 office spaces. When the workplace modernization program is fully implemented, office costs are projected to drop to $85 million a year, resulting in annual savings of more than $30 million.

“We’re funded by taxpayers and so it’s always incumbent on us to explore ways to manage costs,” says Akintan. “Certainly, being downtown-focused and downtown-based we have considerable costs that go with our real-estate footprint and so exploring ways to maximize our finances was another motivation for a lot of [this remote working plan], but it was mostly to position ourselves to better support our employees.”

Read: Survey finds 80% of employees want remote work to continue post-pandemic

Indeed, she has experienced first-hand how working from home can support employees, particularly working parents, to achieve a better work-life balance. 

“Lately, even though I’m still working, it’s nice to be here when my children walk in the door. So we’re realizing our employees are seeing the benefits of being at home more and want more of it — our goal is to provide that as much as possible while the work still gets done and [employees] have shown through the pandemic [they] can still do the work while being at home.”

The current crisis has simply sped up a shift that many other agile organizations, including Facebook Inc., Shopify Inc. and Twitter Inc., have now fully embraced. While the City can’t move at the speed of privately-held companies, due to everything from union negotiations to city council approvals, even those who were skeptical have come around, says Akintan, noting the work done during the pandemic to ensure smooth remote working for employees will continue to pay dividends in the years to come.

“We’ve done a lot in terms of training and learning around resilience, how to build your resilience and training managers on how to manage a remote team and how to engage and manage a remote workforce. . . . The skills our managers are learning now about how to support the mental health of staff working remotely, that will continue to be relevant as they move to our future state.”

Read: Shopify moving majority of employees to permanent remote work