Local workplaces forever changed by pandemic (4 photos)

‘The general consensus is we’re not going back to 9 to 5,’ says Barrie company president; Most businesses not planning on returning to offices full-time

The worldwide health pandemic brought David Sopuch’s ecommerce business to a stop in March.

For three months, his clients across the world seemed to suspend activity and three went out of business. And then organizations increasingly looked to online platforms to extend or replace the work they had been doing out of physical spaces.

Now, Avetti Commerce is looking at a record year.

The Barrie-based business with seven offices worldwide is accustomed to using Chat and online tools to communicate with its large customers worldwide as well as project managers in Toronto.

But Sopuch would still go to the Barrie office daily, where about a dozen people work, to oversee operations and work with students and new hires. 

That routine is now permanently altered as a result of the pandemic experience.

“We’re only going to the office two days a month and I don’t ever foresee that ever going to more than one day a week, ever,” said Sopch. “It’s wonderful being home.

“It might be possible even to have new employees on board even without seeing them.”

Sopuch says he has no intention or desire to go back to the office. But he will continue with plans to move the office to new, larger quarters along Barrie’s waterfront in the new year. Perhaps, he muses, he might share the space with another company that wants to use the space during some of the unoccupied periods.

Through his business dealings, Sopuch sees other businesses relying less upon offices as well, some even giving up the space altogether.

“No longer do you need an office for credibility,” he observes.

The trend to more permanent work-from-home arrangements appears to be nationwide.

In a survey of nearly 11,000 Canadians, the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with research firm Caddle, found that 23.6 per cent of Canadians intend to work more often at home in a year from now

That survey suggests the Canadian hospitality industry could lose up to $20 billion in revenues in the next year, 30 per cent due to telecommuting as fewer people will go out for lunch or grab a bite on the run.

While that is likely to result in a significant loss in the big cities, that could well translate into a win for smaller centres like Barrie, where many commute out of the community to work, said Kelly McKenna, executive director of the Downtown Barrie Business Association.

With more people telecommuting, she expects there is an increased likelihood that their increased presence in their home community will lead many to further explore what’s in their own backyard and perhaps contribute more to the local economy.

“I see that as an opportunity… to now explore the city where they live,” she said.

The pandemic experience has also altered working habits at Barrie’s Linear Transfer Automation, said president Rama Jayaweera.

When the pandemic was declared, any one of the 80-or-so employees who could work from home did and that didn’t change when the provincial government lifted restrictions.

“We’re not losing that much efficiency and we didn’t want to introduce extra risk to the team members that have to be in our building,” he said. “We decided in consultation with our team members… that we will remain working from home for the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, private offices have been converted to flex offices for anyone requiring space in the building.

While that approach remains in a test phase, Jayaweera sees the dawning of a new normal where work is not measured by the time punched on the clock but rather by the tasks achieved.

And instead of individual work stations, the building will contain flex offices and more collaborative spaces that can be booked in advance and “make it more like an industrial Starbucks. The general consensus is we’re not going back to 9 to 5.”

The new management style would still require employees to attend functions or meetings at specific times, and then leave it to them to decide their own working hours.

But, he points out, there’s still a balance to achieve. Not everyone loves working from home and even for those that do, there are some down sides.

Young, single people with no family in Barrie may miss the social aspect of going into a workplace. And there are natural collaborations that occur when problems are sometimes solved around the watercooler, said Jayaweera.

But the home work experience pushed along with the help of the pandemic isn’t necessarily just an option of convenience. For some it was born out of necessity.

Natalie Klaiman saw no other option.

At the end of May, after two months of not being able to carry on any business at her salon, she packed up her things at her Blow N Glow Beauty Lounge at Bradford’s Walmart plaza on Holland Street and moved out of her shop.

She then set up a single chair, mirror and wash station in one room in her house and her laser machine in another and as soon as the government gave the go-ahead, she started accepting clients. One at a time.

“I did what I had to do,” said Klaiman who was sad to abandon the commercial space that she had designed from scratch two and a half years ago at a cost of $100,000. “It’s OK, it’s better than nothing. But, of course, it’s not the same as the salon.”

In her new space, she’s doing one-third of her pre-pandemic business volume. And she said she can hope all she likes to rebuild what she had, but nothing she can do herself will prevent a second wave of COVID-19 or stop a re-introduction of restrictions.

“They tell us to close, we close. They tell us to open, we open,” said Klaiman, adding that the beauty sector is experiencing a shock with salon owners and their employees facing some sad economic realities.

She points to her $100,000 laser machine, used for hair removal and skin treatment, for which she pays monthly. She was given a four-month reprieve on payments, but that just delays what must inevitably be paid.

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