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Hybrid remote work schedules here to stay for Downtown Winnipeg

Evan Chrusch could not ask for a more difficult time to start his law career than in the middle of a pandemic.

Chrusch began articling at Brennan Partners LLP amidst a downtown scene that was much quieter compared to a few years prior.

“Downtown was empty because I started working downtown in 2021, and again it was most offices were closed, skeleton staff, just not a lot of people around,” Chrusch said.

In this multi-part series, CTV News Winnipeg surveyed four downtown employers about work-life after the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was an unusual experience for the University of North Dakota graduate who would become an associate with the firm a year later.

“Very odd feeling in a way, almost like something out of a movie when you have the entire city centre basically being emptied out,” Chrusch said.

“Articling in the thick of Covid was, a little bit different because there was no face-to-face,” he said, adding that the majority of court hearings were virtual or just outright cancelled.

Chrusch, who would enjoy in-person meetings, said it was almost jarring once he met people again in the workplace.

“You just can’t put a face to the name, so it’s definitely good that we’re back to in-person now.”

READ MORE: ‘People are trickling back’: Thousands of workers return to downtown Winnipeg offices

Despite having to start at a busy real estate and criminal practice during the pandemic, Chrusch said there were some benefits to working downtown at this time.

“It was super easy to park downtown for a good two years,” Chrusch said.

“You could get any time of day. You’d get a spot. No problem,” he said, “Now it seems if you get to work any later than 10:30, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a spot some days.”

CTV News surveyed four of downtown Winnipeg’s notable employers: Manitoba Public Insurance, Wawanesa Insurance, Manitoba Hydro, and True North Sports & Entertainment.

They all have different working arrangements for their employees.

‘We’ve allowed people the autonomy to make that decision themselves’

“Everyone works kind of over two weeks, every team works 50 percent of the time in the office and 50 percent at home,” said Satvir Jatana, President and CEO of Manitoba Public Insurance.

Workers are split into two groups: 100 are always on-site and 400 to 500 in any given week. These numbers represent the 1,200 employees who have returned to work from the office.

Jatana said the public insurer focused on one objective: teamwork.

“One was we do feel there’s more camaraderie, more collaboration, more team engagement,” she said, “Some of our team members started in Covid and didn’t know who their peer was, never met their peer in person.”

Wawanesa Insurance currently has the most flexible policy among the four employers. Since employees started returning to their offices, workers can choose when to come in to work at their new facility.

“We’re not that regimented,” said Evan Johnston, executive vice-president of strategy & related businesses for Wawanesa Insurance.

“We’ve said two days a week,” he said, “We’ve allowed people the autonomy to make that decision themselves.”

At Manitoba Hydro, days for collaboration were at the top of mind when developing a return-to-work model for 2022.

“There’s a lot of face-to-face on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays,” said Scott Powell, director of corporate communications for Manitoba Hydro.

“I think there’s a value to that, and certainly, it’s worked well for us in the time we’ve had that hybrid model in place.”

Over at True North Sports & Entertainment, it’s all hands on deck for a full work week.

“We have everybody working here for the most part five days a week or more for events,” said Dawn Haus, senior vice-president of culture & guest experience and chief people officer for True North Sports & Entertainment.

“We do have a flexible schedule for folks,” she said, adding they understand not all roles need to work at the office, “Overall, we are all back full-time.”

At the University of Manitoba, Lukas Neville, associate professor of organizational behaviour, says offices are becoming more than a place to work.

“I think one of the things we’re going to see is a shift from offices as places to execute the work and more towards offices as places for people to meet, interact and collaborate,” Neville said.

Lukas Neville, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Manitoba, says current employers should stop and think of what the best use of office space going forward will be. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg)

From his research, one thing is clear: remote work is here to stay.

“I think of the office as the place where the relational foundation, the glue that brings teams together, that’s where it starts,” Neville said, adding it is also good for a company’s bottom line.

“Survey data suggests that people would pay like six percent of their salary,” he said, “They would take a fairly substantial salary hit to either stay remote working or to be able to gain the flexibility to work remotely,” At Wawanesa Insurance’s new facility, employees have access to a state-of-the-art gym, cafeteria and rooftop patio. Johnston said it was key to implement these features when the building opened this year.

“The attraction and retention of talent is the recipe for future success, and we think we’ve nailed that,” he said.

Neville said current employers going forward should stop and consider what the best use of their office space will be.

“I hope that managers in particular start thinking about how do we make that time spent in the office as meaningful as possible,” Neville said.

Evan Chrusch is an associate at Brennan Partners LLP. In 2021 he started articling with the firm in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg)

For Chrusch, looking back, time spent working remotely during COVID-19 feels like it was all a blur.

“When you’re in the thick of it, it feels like, when’s this going to end?” Chrusch said.

“It’s just dragging on and on and on for two years,” he said, “Now you look back and it feels like it was just over in the blink of an eye.”

Businesses in Winnipeg’s downtown also suffered during COVID-19 with more shops closing down than opening up.

Next in our series, we will showcase one business that has found the light at the end of the tunnel. 

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