One of New Brunswick's largest employers says it is embracing a hybrid workplace.
Medavie, which manages about 3,500 employees in the province and another 4,500 across Canada, was a presenter at the Workforce of the Future Summit in Moncton this week.
In the last few years, many employees have been asking for more flexibility, said Anita Swamy, senior vice-president of operations for the company's not-for-profit health insurance division, Medavie Blue Cross.
In response, she said, flexibility has become one of the top corporate priorities.
"I think it's an imperative, to be honest," said Swamy.
There's an acute labour shortage across the province. In the third quarter of this year, more than 7,000 jobs were posted in southeastern New Brunswick, said Susy Campos, CEO of the regional economic development agency, 3+, one of the organizers of the summit.
There are more jobs than people to fill them, she said, so companies need to sell themselves.
"It's an employee's market," she's said. "It's hard right now to attract the right talent."
One thing that many workers find appealing is a flexible workplace, Campos said.
About 40 per cent of Canadian jobs can be done remotely, Statistics Canada estimated in May 2020.
"If you can implement it," said Campos, "it promotes employee satisfaction and well-being and increases productivity and employee retention."
Flexibility means different things to different people, said Swamy.
"It is really about truly understanding and connecting with them on a different level to make sure that we understand what are their goals and interests.
"Sometimes that's about where people are working, and sometimes it's about when they work, in situations where someone is caring for elderly at home or have young children and want to be there in a different way for them."
Medavie Blue Cross now offers a range of options, Swamy said.
Some staff work full time from home, some work full time in the office, some are in the office two days a week at shared workstations — known as hotelling — and others come in three days a week and have desks of their own.
"We have quite an eclectic group," said Swamy. "That's required us to manage in a very different way than we've had in the past."
Some long-entrenched workflow processes posed a challenge to moving work out of the office.
"Prior to the pandemic we would have had a lot of literal paperwork," said Swamy. "So the idea of someone being able to do that job from a different location was questionable for us."
They've done a few experiments to pilot new ways of doing things.
"We came to the conclusion that some of that paperwork didn't actually have to be paper for very long."
The work continues to adopt tools to digitize processes.
Productivity stable or improved
In terms of performance and productivity, visible data has to be available, said Swamy, and there has to be followup if things are slipping.
"In some cases, a performance decline may be about distractions that are in the home office," she said. "In other cases, it may be just a matter of another element related to the work itself."
It's important to know the difference, she said, and to offer appropriate support, "so that we're not bringing someone into an office, when they've asked to work from home, unnecessarily."
But in Medavie Blue Cross's experience, productivity has been stable during the transition to a hybrid workplace, said Swamy, and some teams have made significant improvement.
She chalks that up to employees being allowed to work in the environment that best suits them.
Hybrid workplaces becoming more common
Quite a few employers are now using hybrid workplaces, said Campos — from other large companies, such as Assumption Life, to small ones like the business consulting firm O Strategies. Representatives of both joined Swamy in a panel discussion at the Workforce of the Future conference.
They have not seen a reduction in productivity, yet they all cite greater employee satisfaction.
Her own workplace, 3+, uses a hybrid model, too. Almost half the 15 employees come to the office three days a week, said Campos.
Having the ability to work from home was important to some employees, she said. And productivity is easily monitored, based on whether deadlines are met.
"I think it appeals more to women, especially if they have kids," she said.
Many like to be there when their children get home from school, which also saves them from having to pay for after-school daycare.
"It can become a very attractive part of your compensation package," said Campos.
A leadership culture that champions flexibility is an increasingly important part of what makes a great workplace, said human resource management consultant and workplace columnist Pierre Battah.
"Employers are dabbling with various approaches," he said, and a lot is riding on their experiments, "given the talent shortages in so many sectors, and the ease of remote workers changing jobs or quietly quitting."
Allowing work to be done remotely does help retain women employees, one of many lessons learned during the pandemic, he said.
Remote work pandemic lessons
On the good-for-business side, said Battah, companies also learned that remote workers spend more time on their primary jobs, and their relationships are better with supervisors, because of more frequent check-ins.
The drawbacks, he said, include technical difficulties, ineffective meetings, reduced team cohesion, and loss of group energy and brainstorming.
Remote work doesn't solve work-life balance issues, said Battah, and there are fewer opportunities for professional development.
Swamy said she thinks the new hybrid system at Medavie is actually better in that regard.
Before, job postings were localized, but now they're shared with everyone, and there's "frequent and broad communication" that even includes the president and CEO.
The workplaces that are having success with remote work, said Battah, try to foster well-being and inclusion.
It's also helpful when employers "thoughtfully manage" those who object to returning to the office as opposed to issuing "sweeping edicts."