Editorial: Back to the office – or not?

As we head towards the winter, many offices are settling into new patterns of work—some maintaining hybrid work options established during the pandemic, some returning to in-person work in offices.

E. Lam / DALL-E

As we head towards the winter, many offices are settling into new patterns of work—some maintaining hybrid work options established during the pandemic, some returning to in-person work in offices. Still others are pushing to move from the former to the latter.

Many smaller firms are back to in-person work—a number of them only left their offices during mandated pandemic lockdowns. In cities like Winnipeg, where many architects live near offices in the downtown core, a full return to in-person work is more common. But many larger firms, particularly in bigger cities where longer commutes are the norm, have been seeing less than half of their staff return to the office. In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where housing prices have risen sharply in recent years, some staff permanently relocated outside of the city during the pandemic.

Toronto-based dkstudio architects says that it’s been challenging to bring their 24 people consistently back into the office. “The main struggle is with the younger group,” says co-founder Karen Mak, noting that “they don’t have the experience to work independently, yet they don’t want to come to the office.” Her strategies for enticing staff to return range from prioritizing those who show up for design-forward projects and raises, to getting an office puppy and bringing in unexpected treats (the other day, mochi donuts). 

Maxime Frappier of ACDF, a 100-person firm in Montreal, says that in their case, many of those working from home are senior staff, who feel more productive without the disruptions that come from working in an open-plan office. “But that’s part of the job, you are paid to be interrupted!” says Frappier, who is concerned about the loss of informal mentorship that comes from being able to walk over to a desk to ask a question, and the learning that comes from overhearing conversations. In the meantime, to compensate, he says: “I’m talking louder.”

While working from home can save time on commutes and help in balancing family obligations such as school pickups, it also comes with an emotional and psychological toll tied to higher rates of burn-out, according to a recent study at Simon Fraser University. “Working from home means losing out on those water cooler conversations and casual collisions with coworkers—which have a surprisingly profound impact on well-being,” writes social epidemiologist Kiffer George Card, one of the study’s leads. “Furthermore, considering how important workplaces and schools are for finding and building friendships, a loss of these spaces could have serious long-term consequences for people’s social health—especially if the time spent with others at work is now spent at home alone.” His team’s research suggests that hybrid work arrangements offer the best of both worlds—with 87 of those working in a hybrid mode reporting good or excellent mental health, compared to 54 percent of those that worked only in-person, and 63 percent of those who worked only at home. 

In Vancouver, VIA—A Perkins Eastman Studio has aligned with their parent company’s policy for staff to work in the office three days a week. “Our office has been experimenting with a number of ways to encourage people to work and connect in the office,” says senior associate Anne Lissett. “My feeling is that in-person collaboration is really valuable, so I hold my team meetings together in the office, and I connect with other project managers informally there too.” She adds that “happy hours, along with occasional office breakfasts, lunches, and other activities that emphasize the fun of being together in real life, are also perks to in-person work.”

Toronto-based MJMA has similarly requested staff to be in the office for three days a week, Tuesdays through Thursdays, with Mondays and Fridays as optional work-from-home days. “For the sake of office culture, and the vitality of the workplace and business efficiency, we are focused on having everyone back in the office on the same three middle days of the week,” says partner Ted Watson. “Interestingly, what has become clear is that our meetings online have become more and more successful and equitable when we can use Miro, Enscape, and Bluebeam, and have access to all our files and screen-sharing of internet content simultaneously and together,” he adds. As a result, the majority of MJMA’s meetings are held online. “Our meeting rooms have never been less used—to the point that we are considering if we can delete half of them in order to create higher value space for staff.”

“Conversing, socializing, and learning from proximity are goals we believe in. We’re focused on fostering and retaining this by having everyone back together, sharing space, lunch and stories,” says Watson. “But remote working, in some form, is here to stay.”