Ottawa’s Downtown Core – Getting Back to Work Needs to Happen Sooner than Later

CEO Hugh Gorman shares his thoughts on Return to work as commercial real estate in the city’s core waits to find out its “new normal”

On March 23, 2020, as COVID-19 infections spread across the country and around the world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians to “go home and stay home”. Now, after 2+ years of remote work, employers are struggling to get people back into offices.

In Ottawa, federal government employees are taking a particularly hard line. One public service union representing 70,000 employees estimates that 60 percent of its members would prefer to stay in a work from home situation, with some even declaring they would quit before going back to the office.

After several months with no clear direction, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier recently declared hybrid work as the future of the federal public service. However, rather than provide details about how that will be implemented, she has charged each department with figuring out how to make it work. Initial results have been a mix of directives, with some departments telling employees to come back several days per week, while others are more flexible.

All the while, in downtown Ottawa, where the federal government occupies a large percentage of office space, and government employees provide the majority of business for shops and restaurants, the wait continues.

From a commercial real estate perspective, until there is a better understanding of what the government’s hybrid work environment will be, downtown Ottawa will not be able to establish a “new normal”. There are a myriad of unknowns and a full picture of what the office and retail landscape will look like remains fuzzy. For Colonnade BridgePort CEO Hugh Gorman, the focus for landlords in the short term is to help tenants and occupants create spaces that support collaboration and creativity – transforming offices into places where employees want to be.

Outside of his real estate lens, when it comes to getting employees back to work, Hugh has a strong viewpoint as a long-time business leader… It is taking way too long.

Here are Hugh’s Views

There is an absolute need to get employees back into offices.

Speaking specifically about the federal government and the unions that represent public service employees, there has to be leadership from both sides and that leadership needs to be aligned. Making the assumption people can create a culture where productivity, mentorship and collaboration are valued by working exclusively from their desks at home, is wishful thinking and wrong.I find it perplexing the Treasury Board could say that it was safe to come back to work, yet there is not a formal policy as to what that means for individual departments. Leadership needs to be very specific about expectations. If we’re going leave it up to each individual employee to make the decision about where they will work, it’s impossible to get a cohesive team that is working together under a collective culture. There isn’t any benefit to employers or employees to expect the situation to resolve itself.

One of Colonnade BridgePort’s priorities as COVID restrictions eased was to develop a set of expectations for our employees. We decided on a hybrid work model. Yes, it is flexible and yes, it is different than the way we did it before, but there are clear expectations.

In terms of businesses who depend on the foot traffic of office employees, they really need to think deeply about how to evolve because it isn’t going back to the way it used to be. We are going to need less shops and services in the downtown core because the volume of people will be permanently diminished. If businesses are going to survive, they’re going to have to be creative – whether it’s going online, doing take out, or using whatever other means they can to create a value-based relationship with their customers. A value proposition based on convenience and proximity to the workplace will not be sufficient.

I have also heard from some employers that are concerned that the balance of power has shifted to employees, and as such, they are worried about mandating a return to office out of fear of losing people. In my view it’s not about who holds the power, it’s about culture and creating a culture where employees share the value of being physically together. Companies and their people will need to work together to achieve the right balance – be adaptable if what you’re doing isn’t working and communicate. Don’t be afraid to act because you may get it wrong. Be transparent and honest that there is no formal playbook with all the right answers and if your culture is good, this shouldn’t be about power balance. It’s about collaboration and finding the right solution for your organization.

However this return to work pans out, it’s not going to be perfect and mistakes will be made. But there is an absolute need to get back to the office and get back to working together… And it needs to happen sooner than later.