On October 16th, 2023, Aura partnered with TenantTalks to host The TenantTalks Summit 2023: Maximizing the In-person Employee Experience. This event featured two panel discussions and a commercial office expo. The event’s second panel featured industry experts from the legal, tech, and professional services sectors to discuss tips and strategies to implement within your organization to improve collaboration, productivity, and the in-office employee experience.
On our panel today, we have:
- Leena Yousefi, Lawyer and Founder of YLaw. YLaw is the largest family law firm in Canada.
- Lydia Ann Tay, VP of Human Resources at FirstService Residential in BC and Alberta.
- Michelle Moonsammy, Partner at EY Canada. EY provides consulting, assurance, tax, and transaction services that help solve its clients’ toughest challenges and build a better working world.
- Kassandra Linklater, Co-founder and chief operating officer of Frontier Collective. The Frontier Collective is an ecosystem builder in British Columbia focused on building the infrastructure, programs, and talent to make Vancouver and BC a top five global leader in frontier technology.
1. What is the most valuable aspect of in-office participation?
Michelle Moonsammy highlights the office as a destination, emphasizing that it plays a crucial role in realizing the benefits of the broader talent strategy and employee value proposition. In-office participation facilitates human and social interactions, which is essential for building relationships and collaboration. It also supports growth and development, promoting continuous learning within the organization. She states that EY is proud to be a continuous learning organization, and a key component of that is being able to come together and work as a team to collaborate and solve problems within the office.
Kassandra emphasizes the importance of participation and social interactions in the office, as employees prefer an active and engaging workplace over an empty one. The spontaneity of water cooler conversations and the ability to bounce ideas off colleagues contribute to the office’s appeal. She argues that no one wants to come into an empty office, and no one wants to be the only one on a team coming in. What makes coming to the office so exciting is having water cooler conversations and being like, “Hey, I have an idea. Do you have a second?”
Leena shares the significance of in-person collaboration for lawyers, as it enables brainstorming and problem-solving, ultimately leading to better client service. Working alongside team members fosters trust and reassures clients that they have a dedicated team supporting them, not just a single person behind a computer screen.
“What kind of lawyers would we be if we couldn’t come together to brainstorm and create solutions to problems?”
–Leena Yousefi, YLaw
Lydia shines a light on onboarding as a critical aspect of the in-office experience. FirstService Residential’s onboarding approach involves setting the expectation that they will be in the office full-time for their first three months. This strategy aims to establish social spaces, encourage collaboration, and provide training, creating a sense of belonging to a “home hub.” Notably, Lydia observed that new hires, especially those previously remote, felt like strangers when they started attending the office during the pandemic, lacking familiarity with the office layout and amenities.
Additionally, Lydia highlights a notable trend involving recent immigrants who faced challenges making social connections, especially if they arrived in Canada during the pandemic. Recognizing their struggle to make social connections, FirstService Residential actively ensures these employees feel a sense of belonging by fostering spaces for meaningful social exchanges within the organization.
2. What was the intention behind any mandates you’ve introduced, and are they working?
Leena begins the discussion by highlighting a shift towards a four-day work week with a preference for two days in the office and two days at home. This decision was driven by employee feedback, with 95% supporting the two-on, two-off model. YLaw prioritizes employee comfort and productivity, accommodating individual preferences while enforcing the consistency of schedules. The guiding principle is to maintain a consistent schedule. Suppose an employee specifies a commitment to working two days in the office and two days from home. In that case, they must refrain from sending daily messages notifying everyone they will only be online that week and vice versa.
Lydia reveals that her company is committed to not mandating in-office attendance. She states that rather than enforcing a strict in-office policy, there is a mutually agreed-upon expectation, ensuring transparency and stability in work arrangements.
Michelle from EY shares insights into their guidelines for in-office attendance, emphasizing the importance of bringing one’s best self to work and delivering value for clients. The focus is on team collaboration and adherence to agreed-upon schedules.
“We are trying to drive home the thinking around how we bring our best selves to work and bring value for our clients. It is about thinking about your team and your client’s needs and ensuring that everybody sticks to the agreement reached.”
-Michelle Moonsammy, EY
Working in the tech sector, Kassandra acknowledges the challenge of mandating a return to the office within the industry. Her approach involves discussions around incentives (“carrots”) rather than strict enforcement (“sticks”). The Frontier Collective prioritizes understanding how teams work best, distinguishing between heads-down and heads-up days. This delineation helps plan office days for collaborative activities and remote work for more focused tasks. The emphasis is on creating an appealing work environment that encourages employees to choose the office voluntarily.
3. What is the main reason for your team not wanting to come into the office?
Lydia notes that at FirstService Residential, the commute is the most significant deterrent to coming into the office. With many employees having moved away from easily commutable areas, the company faced internal deliberations on whether to let individual lifestyle choices dictate office mandates. Eventually, they decided to respect employees’ choices regarding their living locations, recognizing the commute as a substantial barrier, especially for those driving long distances of up to an hour and a half. FirstService Residential is adapting to employee choices and making it easier for people to choose the office.
Lydia and Kassandra both highlight another crucial factor influencing the reluctance to return to the office: the need for deep focus time. Lydia discussed the difficulty of finding dedicated space for heads-down work within traditional office environments. At FirstService Residential, there has been a concentrated effort to build deep focus and private workspaces, but it is still dynamic. Leadership still hears feedback regarding the difficulty of achieving focused work in an open office environment. Kassandra, representing Frontier Collective, emphasized the shift during the pandemic, where individuals became accustomed to working from home with the ability to control their schedules. To address this, Frontier Collective introduced social days for collaborative work and connection and dedicated days for focused individual work, allowing employees to balance collaborative and concentrated efforts.
4. How important is being present in the office for career development and promotions?
This question revealed varied perspectives from our panellists. Kassandra emphasizes the critical role of building connections, community, and relationships, highlighting the irreplaceable nature of in-person experiences despite the effectiveness of virtual meetings.
Michelle underscored the significance of in-person interactions for consultants, particularly in understanding clients and collaboratively crafting solutions. She acknowledged the value of individual quiet time and team collaboration for learning, stressing that combining the two is essential for personal and professional growth.
Lydia holds a more oscillated perspective on in-office attendance concerning career development and promotion. Initially, her response leaned towards the belief that office attendance did not play a significant role in these aspects. Her reasoning stemmed from the findings of an employee engagement survey conducted by FirstService Residential during the year. The survey revealed that employees felt more equipped for future opportunities and had increased access to learning and development opportunities compared to previous years. Lydia pointed out the various online career development opportunities her company hosted and coached, with a consistent year-over-year increase in employee participation. From a metrics-based standpoint, she observed greater engagement and a higher number of development prospects within their hybrid office environment and online offerings.
In contrast, there has been a strategic shift in how promotions are managed for people in leadership positions. A few years ago, a gap was identified in recognizing and promoting people leaders who were not physically present in the office and not actively demonstrating mentoring capabilities. To address this issue, the company introduced programs that allow individuals with a shared interest in leadership roles to be observed and considered for promotion, irrespective of their physical presence in the office. This adjustment aims to ensure fair and equal opportunities for career advancement among all potential leaders.
Leena offered a unique perspective, highlighting the importance of returning to the office to combat employee isolation.
“Many organizations forget about the isolation employees can experience, particularly within the legal sector that deals with such challenging issues.”
–Leena Yousefi, YLaw
She emphasized the need to give employees a sense of purpose to foster a genuine desire to come to the office. Leena argued that without a clear purpose, employees may seek fulfillment elsewhere, leading to job dissatisfaction and a higher likelihood of seeking alternative employment.
5. For hybrid meetings, how do you ensure remote and in-office employees are engaged and being heard?
Leena emphasized using polls and designated individuals to open meetings for the first 10 minutes to keep attendees engaged. She attends meetings in person to convey energy and excitement, preferring in-person gatherings for their positive impact on collaboration.
Michelle stressed the importance of intentional meeting facilitation, aligning the meeting’s purpose with desired outcomes. For example, if a meeting’s goal is to come together, collaborate, and forge relationships, the best type of meeting is in person.
Lydia discusses the “First Call,” an initiative at FirstService Residential has put in place. The First Call is a short virtual meeting twice a week, which shifted from in-person to virtual during the pandemic. This call focuses on community building, social equity, diversity, and mental health, becoming an essential event for employees.
Kassandra, from the Frontier Collective, explained that online meetings are their preferred mode of communication, as the company was established during the pandemic. They have honed the art of virtual meetings for efficiency and effectiveness. Surprisingly, they found that hybrid meetings create barriers to creativity, trust, and openness, so they opt for all virtual meetings, even on in-office days.
6. What strategies are you implementing to ensure an inclusive workplace?
Lydia highlighted the importance of seeking employee input when designing the workplace to meet the team’s diverse needs. FirstService Residential consulted with its employees about essential features to include within the workspace. One solution that resulted from these conversations was integrating a prayer room. Furthermore, she emphasized the significance of providing spaces where people can do their best work as a critical element of inclusivity. At FirstService Residential, various workstations are available, from group meeting rooms to single cubicles and soundproofed solo focus rooms; there is a space for everyone.
Leena explained how their approach to inclusivity extends beyond physical spaces. She emphasized the need to proactively prioritize disadvantaged individuals, viewing them as assets rather than liabilities. At YLaw, there is a clear emphasis on hiring employees from various backgrounds and cultures.
“Inclusivity is about proactively and actively prioritizing people who are disadvantaged and giving them the advantage of being the top choice for employers.”
–Leena Yousefi, YLaw
Kassandra shares a personal journey of overcoming challenges to find meaningful work, underscoring how the new world of work created opportunities for those who had been marginalized. She emphasizes the importance of creating a space where employees can bring their authentic selves and acknowledges the economic potential of diverse individuals.
Michelle discusses the importance of aligning physical workspaces with diversity and inclusion goals. At EY, they have placed careful consideration around optimizing the workspace to be open and accessible for all employees. Michelle further stressed that inclusivity should not be limited to the majority but should encompass everyone within the organization.
“If companies are going to talk about diversity and inclusion, and it is a part of the broader employee value proposition and talent strategy, your workspaces must be able to achieve the intentions.”
-Michelle Moonsammy, EY
TenantTalks is a global nonprofit speaker series focused on the ways of working that are impacting how organizations function today and in the future. Featuring speakers from various industries, disciplines, and locations across the globe, our purely educational events bring leaders together to discuss their personal experiences, challenges, and ideas around the use of the office and the evolving ways that we work.
With the simple goal of providing a platform for collectively shaping the office of the future, TenantTalks operates as a nonprofit project. All proceeds from ticket sales are donated to charities worldwide dedicated to making a difference in our communities.
We are grateful for your contributions to this enriching learning experience and invite you to join us for further insightful discussions at our next event. We look forward to seeing you there!