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Opportunities and challenges in the future work world

Most people agree that the workplace will never return to the way it was prior to COVID-19, but the jury is out on what that entails. A panel discussion during ITWC’s Digital Transformation Week examined the pandemic’s impact and just what that means for the future of work.

“We have been through an interesting time,” said panel moderator Paula Allen, Global Leader & SVP, Research and Total Wellbeing with Lifeworks. “A Gartner study says that the pandemic experience is expected to result in about 48 per cent of knowledge workers working from home at least part of the time.”

View the full panel discussion

A leader in workplace health, Allen moderated a discussion that included Nicole Filiatrault, Marketing Director for UKG Canada, Mark Humphries, Associate Vice President IT for Lethbridge University, and Zac Nichol, Manager Innovative HR Solutions, City of Ottawa.

Filiatrault opened with comments on the investment companies have made in PPE, plexiglass barriers, equipment, and technology. “It has been very interesting to watch how organizations have scrambled to arrive at remote work,” she said. “It’s also interesting to think about what’s going to stay and whether long term productivity and profitability will be affected.’’

When the pandemic hit, Nichol saw the shift to work from home for the City of Ottawa’s knowledge workers. “There were lots of opportunities coming out of this and shifts to more digital solutions and technology,” he said, “as well as changes in processes and how we support our employees.”

Humphries had five days to move an entire campus online. “It was a jarring experience, and we are now seeing that the move back is going to be even harder,” he said. “As we repopulate campus, we have to figure out what to keep, and how to enable a good student experience while still allowing a flexible workplace.”

Measuring and understanding the impact of COVID-19 is a key priority for Nichol in determining how to adapt the City of Ottawa’s people analytics space to best serve the organization. The challenge, he said, is getting a true measure of whether remote work is making workers more productive. “I wonder if some of the feedback around the push to return to work is just the push to return to any sort of social situation,” he said.

In response to a description by Humphries of the pains taken by the University of Lethbridge to find the right balance for employees, Filiatrault commented on the need for a trusting work relationship. “Employees desperately needed to trust their employers to keep them safe when the pandemic broke out,” she said. “Conversely, there has to be trust that employees want to do the right thing.”

A question about future employment practices prompted Nichol to describe borderless hiring as a great opportunity, but one that comes with risks. “I think you will see some differences from industry to industry as people make decisions about the right balance,” he said. “There are lessons to be learned from multinationals. This isn’t a new COVID problem.”

From the university perspective, Humphries concurred that borderless hiring comes with many advantages for expanding the pool of accessible talent. He also anticipated challenges, such as updating of collective agreements to reflect a new work reality and new classes of employees. “We have to be very conscious that our culture is going to change,” he said, “and very intentional as we create this new mix of remote and onsite workers.”

Nichol concluded the comments with the observation that innovation isn’t just pushing the gas pedal a little harder. “This is the time to stop and do that innovative thinking,” he said. “And that will bring us into an entirely different type of challenge.”

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