COVID Changes Canadian Workplaces

Smiling employees in office wave to coworker on screen during video conference call
Contributing Writer

13 minutes

Credit unions adopt new work methods as COVID-19 restrictions lift.

Many Canadian credit unions are finding that the work-from-home approach they were forced to suddenly adopt to fight COVID-19 is actually a good way to operate. So, as society returns to normal, sort of, many are turning that approach into a permanent policy.

The concept of remote work is now being transformed into hybrid work—a term with as many definitions as there are employers and employees. For some, it means employees must be in the office a day or two a week. For others it means staff only need attend certain types of events or meetings in person, while some employees are truly remote, located in another province or country, and won’t ever be expected to show up in person.  

The deciding factors for how to structure hybrid work are twofold: what is best for member service and what works best to keep staff engaged, enthused and employed with you. In this time of staff shortages in many areas, the second factor cannot be overlooked.

An Angus Reid survey conducted in March found more than half of Canadians currently working from home would look for a new job if they were asked to return to the office, while 23% said they would quit on the spot. Also, four out of five of the 2,550 working adults surveyed said that working from home was “good” or “great” and that it had not affected their productivity.

A study by international consulting company Gartner found that the top HR trend for 2022 is that “a vast majority of HR leaders (95%) expect that at least some of their employees will work remotely after the pandemic. This shift to hybrid work will be a massive driver of transformation and one HR leaders must be prepared to support.”

But management experts warn executives they need to realize that managing operations with their staff in a hybrid work model will be much harder than it was to coordinate their efforts when everyone was stuck at home.

“The lessons learned during the pandemic only go so far in helping leaders address the next great experiment: hybrid working,” says a report by McKinsey & Company. “A hybrid model is more complicated than is a fully remote one. At scale, using it will be an unprecedented event in which all kinds of norms that have been accepted practice for decades will be put to the test. Leaders are a long way from knowing how it will work.”

Their advice is to understand and communicate to staff that working conditions will be in a state of flux for years.

Employees Are Tired

The Angus Reid survey also found some worrying information that managers and HR departments need to consider: The pandemic has taken a considerable toll on both the physical and mental health of Canadians—a trend that affects people across the spectrum of age, gender, education and other demographic factors, but is harder on women than men.

Another McKinsey report looked at how the pandemic has changed the workplace and the way workers approach their jobs.

“Employees are tired, and many are grieving. They want a renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work. They want social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers. They want to feel a sense of shared identity. Yes, they want pay, benefits, and perks, but more than that they want to feel valued by their organizations and managers. They want meaningful—though not necessarily in-person—interactions, not just transactions.”

What does this mean for credit unions and how do executives pull these different themes together?

“Managers are going to have to have some honest discussions with employees, who have developed a new set of working habits over the past two years,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, who wrote a Conference Board of Canada report on the post-pandemic return to work: Remote, Office, or Hybrid: Employee Preferences for Post-Pandemic Work Arrangements. “Organizations and employees need to be willing to compromise on how work will be structured post-pandemic.”

The report says, “Managers and executives expressed a very different vision for the future of work than do many of the professionals who report to them.” That’s in part because, in many cases, top executives continued to work from their offices.

Duxbury’s survey found that, on one hand, 23% of employees want to return to the office full-time. On the other hand, 28% want to work remotely full-time. In the middle are those who want a hybrid model, with the average wanting to spend half their time working from home.

A Harvard Business Review article notes that a Microsoft study on remote working by its staff during the pandemic found workweeks were lengthened by four hours or more as employees signed in earlier and signed off later to accommodate demands at home. It also found that employees used evenings and weekends to catch up on work. They also had more meetings than normal, but the meetings were shorter.

Pandemic Speeds Shift to Hybrid

For $243 billion Desjardins Group, headquartered Montreal with 4.8 million members, the pandemic-driven shift to remote and hybrid workplaces has simply sped up a transition that was in the works, says Marc-André Malboeuf, VP/HR centre of expertise.

“The pandemic has really accelerated a shift in mindset,” Malboeuf says, noting that in as far back as 2018, Desjardins had started an initiative that was developing a flexible work environment. “We had talked about flexi works, where we were putting in more collaboration and benching tables so that people could sit together as teams to discuss and brainstorm.”

The last two years have shown that, if necessary, many people can do their jobs from home and remain as effective and engaged as they were when working in the office, and many are happier since they can cut out commuting and work a more flexible schedule.

“We’ve been revisiting a lot of our organizational practices, looking at how we do talent management, performance management and training development,” Malboeuf says. “We’re really focusing on how we generate a good employee experience in the hybrid model.”

During the pandemic, Desjardins asked its managers to be close to employees and be empathetic, understanding their changing needs. That will remain important with the shift to hybrid work.

For example, Malboeuf mentions one employee who had a young child—and then during the pandemic, he and his wife had twins. This employee wanted and needed to work from the office part time, simply to get some peace and quiet.

“We were very open to allowing him to come back into the office and being able to do his work,” Malboeuf says.

Marc-André Malboeuf
VP/HR Centre of Expertise
Desjardins Group
We’ve been revisiting a lot of our organizational practices, looking at how we do talent management, performance management and training development. We’re really focusing on how we generate a good employee experience in the hybrid model.

This spring, Desjardins has been rolling out its hybrid approach and expects most employees to work in the office at least one day a week. However, the model varies depending on the nature of the work and the needs of members and clients. So far, it has found that the days employees are most likely to be in the office are mid-week—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The focus is on flexibility and determining the best way to meet members’ needs. “The mindset is that it’s all about our members and clients,” Malboeuf says.

Employees Want Options

Meridian Credit Union Ltd., with $28.5 billion in assets and 365,000 members, has two corporate offices, one in St. Catharines, Ontario, and one in the west end of Toronto. It gradually returned employees to the office this spring, but returning to the office isn’t a requirement. Staff at corporate offices have the option to work from home, says Claudine Chess, director/organizational effectiveness and learning & development.

In Toronto, Meridian CU temporarily gave up one of its two floors of office space and is currently evaluating whether it needs that space back, Chess says.

When Meridian CU relocated to its Toronto office a few years ago, it introduced a variety of meeting rooms for collaboration or conversations and has recently implemented a hotel booking system for desk space.

The St. Catharines office has the same amount of space as it did pre-COVID, and the CU is exploring how it may be configured differently to accommodate the type of work employees might come together for in person.

Earlier this year, as new President/CEO Jay-Ann Gilfoy took over, she toured all the credit union’s offices and met the 2,000 employees to ask them what should change and what should stay. Chess says there was “overwhelming support for remote work and the flexibility it provides.”

Meridian CU has moved to a hybrid-first model so that employees in the corporate office can choose where they want to work and when they want to go to an office. Chess says this flexibility has helped the credit union attract some new hires who were looking to leave their jobs because their previous employers were withdrawing the work-from-home option. There are reports that some employers have been reluctant to go this far, because they fear problems down the road if there is a need to shift back to in-office work, but that’s not a concern for Meridian, she says.

In fact, offering a remote approach has allowed Meridian to hire a handful of employees who don’t even live in Ontario. 

“If employees need or prefer to go to the office, that is an option,” Chess says. “Some people have challenges working at home due to a lack of space or other issues, so they prefer working in the office, at least some of the time.

“Before the pandemic, many of us were on autopilot when it came to thinking about our workspace, but the pandemic has forced us to think about it,” Chess adds. “Do we need to commute to an office? Why and when?”

Meridian CU has offered managers advice on how to work with staff who work remotely, and it has provided assistance to help employees set up ergonomically correct home offices.

Claudine Chess
Director/Organizational Effectiveness and Learning & Development
Meridian Credit Union Ltd.
If employees need, or prefer to go to the office, that is an option. Some people have issues working at home due to a lack of space or other issues, so prefer working in the office, at least some of the time.

Chess says the credit union is working hard to ensure the its culture is not changed by remote work.

“With meetings done remotely or on Microsoft Teams, managers can’t rely on chance encounters or short sessions at the coffee maker or water cooler to build relationships,” Chess says. “Culture was communicated, in part, through these serendipitous encounters.”

Instead, technology has replaced many of those sessions. Like many other businesses, Meridian CU uses Yammer for employee-led chats, or the chat function on Teams often is used to continue individual discussions after a formal meeting.

“The pandemic challenge has provided an opportunity to think and consider how Meridian operates and make conscious decisions about how to manage best going forward with culture, [keeping] employee well-being at the forefront and, always, an unwavering commitment to member experience,” Chess says.

For Prospera, Pandemic Breaks Paradigms

$9 billion Prospera Credit Union, based in Surrey, British Columbia, with 120,000 members, has spent a lot of time and effort deciding how to organize its new hybrid work approach, says TJ Schmaltz, chief people and legal officer.

“The pandemic was really a paradigm breaker for us,” he says. “We recognized that the way we were working could be done differently and probably should be done differently, so we spent a lot of time on our project called ‘the future of work.’”

This spring, Prospera CU’s employees started to return to the office. “But we’re not returning the way we were before, and it’s not business as usual,” he says. “It’s not back to normal. Our return to the office is actually on a completely different construct than what we had before.

 “We’ve taken this slow, where we’re taking an approach of making sure that our employees are hearing what’s going to happen,” Schmaltz says. “We’ve been piloting our approach with smaller teams to be able to work out a few of the kinks.”

The new approach will see few employees in the office full time. It is built on trusting employees to know best where they can work most effectively—at home, in the office or perhaps in a branch.

“The second part to that equation is that we want to create an environment that is driven by a highly connected culture with highly engaged employees and high collaboration,” Schmaltz says.

TJ Schmaltz
Chief People and Legal Officer
Prospera Credit Union
We’re not telling you ‘here’s when you have got to be in the office,’ or ‘you have to be there three days a week.’ What we’re saying is there are certain activities that we know are best done face-to-face or in person.

To achieve this, Prospera has developed guidelines on what needs to be done in person.

“We’re not telling you ‘here’s when you have got to be in the office,’ or ‘you have to be there three days a week.’ What we’re saying is there are certain activities that we know are best done face-to-face or in person.”

The guidelines tell employees and managers that any activities “that are all about collaboration, connection and celebration are the ones that we say you should be in the office for.”

“It’s an activity-based hybrid approach,” Schmaltz says. “Very few of our office roles have to be in the office full time. The vast majority of our employees are going to be designated hybrid.”

The new approach places more pressure on communication and the need to ensure that people feel like they’re part of a single organization. “You can easily get siloed into your team and the people who you see on your screen,” he notes.

Schmaltz says Prospera CU has found that some branch employees are attracted by the flexibility and are interested in looking for other roles that have this option.

But at the same time, the pandemic “confirmed that our members still have an interest in a face-to-face interaction and an expectation of bricks and mortar.”

Prospera CU faced a unique challenge when the pandemic forced it to close its offices in March 2020. Its merger with Westminster Savings had been completed just two months earlier, and integration had not yet begun.

“We started locking down before we brought teams together,” Schmaltz says. Initially, meetings had to be held by conference call, then video hookups became available. “In some ways, having the focus of the pandemic really got us focused on what’s really important. We made more progress in our integration than I think you otherwise would have seen.”

Cast a Wider Hiring Net

As they learn to navigate the new hybrid work world, credit unions have one big advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining staff, says Malboeuf of Desjardins. The fact that people can work from home for employers located anywhere has created challenges in hiring, but it has also opened up opportunities, since it allows Desjardins to cast a wider net when it is seeking employees.

“We have people poaching our employees in Montreal, but I know Montreal organizations that are approaching people in Toronto who have both language capabilities.”

The challenge is not an HR issue; it is a business issue, Malboeuf explains, since Desjardins needs to identify the solutions that will retain employees.

“We do have an advantage—it’s our values,” Malboeuf says. “People are looking for meaning or purpose, and we have that in our cooperative values. Employees are looking for an employer that has a higher purpose than just making money.” cues icon

Art Chamberlain is a journalist who writes about issues affecting credit unions.  

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