As more workers return to the office, larger employers based in Ottawa’s downtown core have noticed that the experience of working in the area has changed dramatically since the pandemic.As more workers return to the office, larger employers based in Ottawa’s downtown core have noticed that the experience of working in the area has changed dramatically since the pandemic. “It’s empty,” said Peter Berry, a partner at Ottawa-based firm Welch LLP, headquartered on Slater Street. “The hustle and the excitement of being downtown is now gone. There’s not the volume of people, there’s not the same volume of activity. It’s not an exciting place to be anymore.” According to Berry, Welch is gradually shifting back into the office, though it has adopted a permanent hybrid model. On any given day, he said, 30 to 35 per cent of the firm’s 230 employees are in the office. “The flexibility is something we want to continue longer term, though we do want to see a little bit more of a return to office,” he said. “Building a stronger corporate culture is one reason why, and there is a training aspect that I’d say is better in the office.” But, like many employers, he said there are barriers, especially in the downtown core. “There’s so many businesses that have shut down,” said Berry. “Restaurants, coffee shops, retailers that service downtown occupiers. A lot of them are now gone. There’s a lot less choice. There’s a lot less activity.” Despite the challenges, Welch’s employees and clients seem anxious to get out of the house and into the downtown core, he added. “It’s still a good place to work,” he said. “We’re still pushing for a lot of meetings downtown, whether it’s at our office or at a restaurant. People are still willing and eager to do that. I think there is a lot of desire for people to get out and do these things.” Ottawa law firm Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall has made a near complete return to its office on Albert Street, according to co-chair and partner Anthony McGlynn. “We work collaboratively,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of silos. We train people and bring them along. Professional development is important, collegiality is important. And all those things just seem to work better when we’re in the office.” The transition hasn’t been without its challenges, though. In addition to the general emptiness of the core, transit has cropped up as an issue. Workers who commute using public transit, for example, have been dealing with prolonged shutdowns of the city’s light-rail system. But McGlynn said more people are choosing to use their cars to commute as hybrid work models decrease the number of times per week they need to travel downtown. Parking lots tend to fill up quickly in the mornings, making it difficult to drive in later in the day. “The traffic is back and parking is a problem again,” he said. “Because people are only coming to the office two or three days a week, they’re not bothering to use public transit.” While the firm’s workforce of 120 is back downtown in force, the fact that many of its neighbouring businesses have not made the same transition has been noticeable. Like Berry, McGlynn said he’s noticed a substantial change. “There’s a cultural shift in a way,” he said. “It’s getting more and more normal and the restaurants and amenities are starting to come back, but the government and other businesses aren’t coming to the office every day anymore.” For companies like Acart Communications Inc., the transition back to the office has not been smooth. The 32-person team, which is headquartered in an office building on Nepean Street, went through at least five iterations of its return-to-office initiative before finding a suitable model, according to chief innovation officer Andrew McWiggan. “Initially, we did mandatory days back in the office,” said McWiggan. “Then we went to team-based days where each department came in on certain days. Then we moved to just having everyone come in on alternate days. We’ve worked with a series of different models.” McWiggan said they’ve now found a “sweet spot,” where employees come in Tuesday to Thursday and work from home on Mondays and Fridays. Since returning to in-person work, McWiggan said he’s also noticed a shift in the work culture downtown. “It’s changed dramatically,” he said. “There’s not a lot of foot traffic anymore. When I first moved here (in 2019), I remember the street being busy. You would stop and see people you knew walking down the street. It was much more vibrant.” The permanent shift to hybrid, as well as the decision by some companies to downsize and move away from the core, is part of the issue. “Our largest industries are not occupying as much real estate downtown and they’re not having staff frequent downtown regularly,” McWiggan said. “Like Shopify; I remember the days where they had thousands of people in the space and now they’ve moved to a digital-first model.” He added that there have been some tough conversations with staff members concerned about safety in the downtown, something street-level businesses such as restaurants and retailers have raised alarm bells about in recent years. While the larger, corporate companies don’t experience the same negative effects on business, he said there are still worries. “Ultimately, some of our staff don’t feel safe accessing the space at certain times,” he said. “It’s really quite tragic. There’s obviously increasing challenges for people with the opioid crisis, homelessness and, really, the disparity of wealth.” With the hybrid work model likely here to stay, McWiggan said innovative solutions to bring vibrancy back to the core should focus more on community over business. “We’ve been in this space for well over 30 years,” he said. “I think there needs to be some creative thinking about how to rebuild in this sort of environment. I don’t think it’s something that can just be an overnight sensation. You have to figure out how to rebuild a downtown core knowing that information.”
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