The CEO of email marketing software maker Knak asked all of his Ottawa-based employees to work in the office from Tuesday to Thursday each week beginning in December 2022.While the push to bring workers back under one roof appears to be gaining momentum as the new year kicks off, the co-founder of a leading local tech startup says experience has taught him that return-to-office mandates can backfire if employees aren’t willing to buy in. A number of Ottawa tech firms, including e-commerce software company Trellis and cybersecurity provider Forescout, have recently relocated to larger office spaces amid an accelerating return-to-office trend. Meanwhile, Kanata software powerhouse Solace announced it will move to a new headquarters on Innovation Drive at the end of this month and will require almost all its employees to work in the new space a minimum of three days a week starting in February. From his own company’s headquarters in Ottawa south, Pierce Ujjainwalla is watching his counterparts’ latest moves with a keen eye. The CEO of email marketing software maker Knak asked all of his Ottawa-based employees to work in the office from Tuesday to Thursday each week beginning in December 2022. It was a dramatic shift for Knak, which was a fully remote enterprise even before the COVID-19 crisis forced offices around the world to shut down. But like many employers grappling with the new reality of work as the pandemic dragged on, Ujjainwalla and his management team felt they needed to encourage more face-to-face collaboration among employees who had interacted with each other only via video screens for years on end. Knak, which raised US$25 million in venture capital a little over two years ago, moved into a 17,000-square-foot office with room for about 100 people in the summer of 2022. However, the company quickly realized that forcing everyone to clock in at its new headquarters three times a week was counterproductive. “We got a lot of negative feedback,” Ujjainwalla told OBJ in an interview on Tuesday. “What I actually want is a great culture in the office of people who want to be there. I don’t want to force anyone to be here who doesn’t want to be here.” Last summer, barely six months after instituting the return-to-work mandate, Knak rescinded it. Ujjainwalla said the reversal had an immediate impact on employee morale. “I would say in general the vibe in the office was much better (after the change) because everyone who was there wanted to be there,” he explained. Today, Knak leaves it up to its 50 or so Ottawa-based employees to decide whether they want to work in the office. Ujjainwalla estimates that between 60 and 70 per cent of those workers make the commute on any given day – with the number of attendees typically spiking on Thursdays, when Knak provides free lunch. Other enticements such as free parking have also encouraged staffers to make the trek. In addition, Ujjainwalla said the social aspect of work can’t be overlooked as a powerful magnet for drawing employees out of their dens. “You get some people who really like to work in the office, and they become kind of a bit of a cultural lightning rod for others to bring them in,” he noted. “We’re seeing that for sure now.” Ujjainwalla said that while he feels in-person collaboration is essential for certain jobs, what’s most important is for employees to feel like they are part of the team and that their contributions matter – whether they are sitting together in a boardroom or gathering in front of laptops. “I really think at the end of the day, it’s about motivating employees, and I think a big part of motivating employees is giving them autonomy to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “At least for us, it’s been very positive going to this model. “I don’t really care if anyone comes into the office if we’re hitting our goals and people are enjoying the work they do. I think that is ultimately what every company should be focused on.” That being said, Knak hosts a three-day retreat for its entire 80-person team once a year as well as quarterly town hall meetings which local employees are required to attend in person to ensure that everyone gets face time with each other. Ujjainwalla says the company’s approach to work remains fluid and could change again depending on circumstances. “If there’s a reason to go to the office, people are happy to do it,” he said. “There has to be something in it for them. It is about listening to your team and working with them, and asking them what it would take to bring you into the office. I think it needs to be a joint effort.” As Ottawa tech firms continue to contemplate their long-term office needs, Ujjainwalla thinks more and more CEOs will be weighing the pros and cons of calling employees back to their desks in 2024 – whether it’s on a full-time basis, a few days each week or when a project warrants it. “I think we’re just a little bit ahead of the curve because we did all of this in 2022,” explained Ujjainwalla, whose firm expects to add another 25 employees to its head count over the next 12 months. “We’re probably just a couple of cycles ahead of most companies. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of decisions this year – do we keep the office, how do we get people to come to the office? Is it worth it? I’m sure a lot of people are going to be thinking about that this year.”
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