By now it’s clear remote work isn’t going away, even once the global pandemic is over and it’s safe for everyone to return to the office.
While this shift opens a raft of questions for employers and their current staff, it also opens new opportunities for companies grappling with the city’s long-felt tight talent market.
Ottawa companies are hiring employees who live outside the National Capital Region to work remotely as a way of addressing a skills shortage in the city.
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But abandoning a long-held mindset that an employee must live in the same region as their employer is raising new questions for companies. What roles are suitable for remote work? How far from Ottawa is too far? And, if Ottawa businesses are looking to hire employees in other cities, how can local firms prevent their staff from being poached by employers outside Canada’s capital?
The shift is also prompting companies to rethink how they sell their organization to job candidates, says James Baker, CEO and co-founder of Keynote Group, a fast-growing Ottawa-based national headhunting and executive search firm focused on the real estate and construction, technology and nonprofit sectors.
“People used to be interested in what the work setup was like, and the perks of the office,” he says. “It’s been fascinating to watch the shift to a lot of employees’ focus on the remote work policy and how working from home is structured.”
Candidates are also concerned with how the company treated its employees during the COVID lockdowns and whether it showed flexibility. Also top of mind, Baker adds, is job security, and whether the organization is stable or likely to initiate layoffs at the first sign of trouble.
He says his clients, particularly in the technology sector, are having to hire outside of Ottawa due to an ongoing labour shortage in the region. The region’s unemployment level remains “remarkably low” despite the economic shock caused by COVID-19, he notes.
“It’s harder to find people locally than it is to find people further afield.”
“It’s harder to find people locally than it is to find people further afield,” Baker says.
Companies are also having to look elsewhere, he says, as they grapple with an aging workforce.
“People are retiring faster than we can replace them, especially at a senior level,” says Baker. “The reality is, there’s too much competition for those mid-managers, so people are going further out in order to get the skills they need at a price point that makes sense.”
The talent shortage in Ottawa is expected to continue, says Baker.
“We know, if anything, the market will get tighter as the market starts to rebound and business starts to rebound.”
He cautions, however, that the city’s long-term prosperity still depends on positioning Ottawa as an attractive place to both live and work.
“The key thing for us will be to continue to attract really good people to the city as much as possible and balance not only just hiring remote workers but also bringing people here to Ottawa who are going to contribute to the city and to our community and continue to make Ottawa the best place in Canada to live,” he says.
It could be bad news for the region if teleworking becomes a permanent thing in the federal government, says Baker. Such a trend could weaken the argument for having a centralized workforce in Ottawa, especially when other parts of the country are in need of jobs.
“There could be some economic impacts if we start to see some of those roles disperse, because a lot of our small businesses feed off a pretty dense commercial business sector,” he says.
On the flip side, the growing comfort for remote workers can also accelerate the expansion plans of companies looking at Ottawa.
“We’ve now got U.S. firms calling us and saying we’ve want to hire an Ottawa-based sales resource to target that city.”
A hybrid future
It’s practically impossible to tackle the topic of the pandemic and the reaction by the business community without dropping the ubiquitous p-word: pivot. Ross Video closed its offices and sent the majority of its employees home in March 2020.
“We’re proud of how well our employees pivoted and adjusted to working from home,” says Cathy McCallion, recruitment strategist and community relations manager for the video production and broadcast company. “We learned a lot about ourselves and our capabilities, and we’ve been able to function and be productive remotely.”
Ross Video hired 90 additional employees between the start of November and end of January, bringing its workforce to 900-plus, and growing.
New hires have been across the board, says McCallion. Some of its positions have been filled by people based out of the Toronto area, with the expectation that they can travel to Eastern Ontario from time to time. “They’re just a short plane, train or car ride away,” says McCallion.
Prior to the pandemic, the company had been piloting remote working in targeted areas, but COVID sent the vast majority of its employees home to work digitally, says McCallion.
“When you’re forced into it you learn to adjust, you learn to adapt, and you realize over time that it can work and it can be very productive.”
The company runs its R&D labs in Ottawa and its headquarters and high-tech manufacturing facility an hour away in Iroquois, between Brockville and Cornwall. While some employees, such as those at the manufacturing and lab facilities, need to physically go into work during the pandemic, jobs in marketing and sales, software, tech support, HR, finance, bookkeeping and accounting are suitable for remote work, says McCallion, who expects to see a hybrid work environment in the future, with people coming into the office less often than before.
“I think we all accept that the office spaces we had prior to the pandemic will likely be shared with one, possibly two, other people,” she says.