How COVID-19 is changing the way Ottawa’s business leaders think

The virtual world creates so much opportunity, but also introduces interesting challenges
Ottawa downtown view

When a crisis strikes, it’s helpful to remember how fortunate we are. And in Ottawa, we’re luckier than most.

With a strong, diversified economy that includes a significant public-sector employment base, we’re well-protected from the damage caused by recessions and other surprises. But that doesn’t mean we should be comfortable or complacent when change is all around us.

Like the Great Depression or the world wars of the 20th century, the pandemic will permanently alter the way we think. Ninety years ago, a generation of Canadians learned never to take economic growth for granted. For decades afterwards, they continued to save conservatively and stockpile canned goods. Likewise, the decisions of our business leaders will be permanently altered by the pandemic, long after it’s over.

The greatest change may be the healthiest: We may never again take stability for granted. We are now a generation of entrepreneurs conditioned to adapt quickly to crisis, compelled to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat, and determined to figure out where the world is going and get there as quickly as possible. Those are all assets in a century when change was going to be a prevailing theme, regardless of any pandemic.

Local workplaces have already been permanently altered by the pandemic. I doubt that absolutely everyone will be working from home forever; in fact, I’d argue more people will return to the office than many would predict right now. But it’s not only Shopify that has reconsidered its real estate plans. Many local businesses are looking for smaller and different spaces, or planning to eliminate their offices altogether. And employees are already reconfiguring their lives with different expectations about where they will work and how little time they intend to spend commuting.

We are now a generation of entrepreneurs conditioned to adapt quickly to crisis, compelled to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat, and determined to figure out where the world is going and get there as quickly as possible.

Hiring patterns have also started to change. I’ve recently spoken with at least three companies that for the first time ever have hired people who don’t live in Ottawa and have no intention of moving here. The virtual world creates so much opportunity – our companies can hire the best people available, regardless of where they live – but also introduces some interesting challenges. If we’re hiring people outside Ottawa, that also means our employees can be poached by any company in the world. So what are we doing to adapt to their needs, rather than expect them to suit ours?

We have also learned to pay closer attention to the personal well-being of our employees, something I hope will continue well beyond the pandemic. “How are you?” has become a genuine question, not a platitude.

The pandemic has accelerated every local company’s embrace of technology. The majority of us had been on no more than a handful of virtual meetings and webinars a year ago. Now everyone is fluent in an entirely different way of conducting team gatherings and client calls. And almost every business has adapted to doing business online. On their own, or with the support of programs like Invest Ottawa’s Digital Main Street (through which I provided some advice to a few companies), thousands have launched online stores, repositioned their websites and created new apps to serve their customers in ways they once considered far off in the future.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of this crisis is a new understanding of time. We’ve all commented on the distortions of the past year. The days on Zoom are long, but the weeks fly by. In a world that was increasingly focused on the immediate, we all had to think about both survival in the moment but also the longer game. How can we create companies that are built to last rather than just produce good results in the next quarter? If there are more threats on the horizon, viral or otherwise, we should be focused on long-term sustainability as much as short-term profit.

A decade or two from now, when Ottawa companies are stronger than ever, we may look back on this difficult time and see it as the foundation for our success, a time when we learned valuable lessons about our companies and ourselves. It might just be the making of us.

Mark Sutcliffe is a co-founder of the Ottawa Business Journal. He is a chair with TEC Canada, a business coach and adviser, and the host of the Digging Deep podcast.