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Preparing for the changing face of the workplace

Canada is slowly reopening. The past five months have put enormous pressure on our institutions structurally and financially. We now need to figure out two things: what has changed in the short-term due to COVID-19 and what has changed forever.

I was recently on a call with some of Canada’s most prominent business leaders offering a unique opportunity to speak with many of Waterloo’s industry partners and employers, and to hear directly from them. They all shared their perspectives as economic engines of Canada, but also as employers with teams of colleagues significantly changed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now these organizations have to move forward.

They had questions. I had questions. More than anything we were able to discuss and debate the broader implications of these uncertain times. That meeting and our current state have made two things quite clear to me: the workplaces we go back to will not look or feel the same as they once did, and universities have a role to play in preparing our nation for it.

Significant change but experience matters

Many leaders I have talked to agree: no one was planning for change on the scale we are experiencing now. I cannot stress this enough. So much of what businesses and organizations – including the University of Waterloo – had planned for was simply not at the level of change we have endured since March.

We all had emergency response plans of some kind for “temporary” ways of maintaining business continuity. But those plans were typically for days at a time or maybe a few weeks, not the months we are experiencing. What Waterloo had across the board was a community experienced in adapting to change. This experience was invaluable.

The skills of flexibility and adaptability within the Waterloo community were borne out of decades of learning and taking advantage of the opportunities created by disruptive forces. We can take these lessons forward into a new era and drive positive change. This will be a benefit in the new workplace but will also be a growing expectation.

Building connections

The physical spaces in which we have been working will look drastically different. From kitchen tables to new plexiglass dividers, we may feel more separated than ever from our colleagues and clients. The sentiment amongst executives is that elements of this short-term change in our physical workplace will transfer into the long-term. Past studies have shown that working from home is more productive in some industries. This is something pointed out by many news articles over the past three months. The problem is, we are not working from home.

We are attempting to work during a public health emergency while being at home. Some of us are coping with a new sense of isolation. Others are managing the tasks of parenting, working remotely and even teaching their children in an unenviable, yet awe-inspiring, balancing act.

We’ve been so focused on delivery and meeting expectations while working in this new environment apart. This is happening out of necessity, but this transition has made many leaders pause for a moment.

They pause and think, what can we keep from this new way of working? What is lost? What are we also missing from working physically apart? What can technology emulate in how we interact with one another? There is something lost, but what can we do to narrow that gap in the interim and into the future?

The challenges from a workplace perspective to keep productivity high in this environment are constantly evolving and will only increase. Technical issues and scaling for teams to stay connected on projects remains an immediate task, but that is making way for challenges of long-term innovation while teams are apart.

Building those connections will be key to success in the future. Our faculty members and students are learning together to build discussions on a topic in a very similar fashion to collaborative and team-building meetings over Microsoft Teams and Webex. These are lessons leaders are noticing and those able to adapt to this new mode of operations will thrive.

The need for internationalization remains

While adjusting to our new reality remains an ever-present challenge, businesses and organizations of all sizes and sectors will be faced with a global recession. There is no way around this. Central banks and governments will continue pulling the levers to help us navigate through the depths of the economic downturn, but it is up to industry to find a way forward.

In a nutshell, growth is needed. We cannot do that by looking inward for everything. Our intricate global supply chains have been significantly altered, but that does not mean that our ideas, our breakthroughs and our organizations should be looking exclusively inward. It will take time for nations to physically open up, and as we do so, there is a need for us to continue efforts at building connections globally.

What the future may hold: more entrepreneurs

We are moving forward and as we start to understand the economic, social, health care and technological implications of COVID-19 long-term, there are a number of foreseeable possibilities. The first of which is a rise in entrepreneurship.

Businesses need a solid product, technology or scientific discovery to grow. But, as echoed in a recent industry report by EY, successful businesses solve problems, and do so through human-centric approaches. Right now, we have a range of new problems to solve with human activity and interact at their core. Health care, childcare, transportation, travel and tourism, and supply chain management are just a few industries seeing significant new problems that arose out of the pandemic.

Entrepreneurs are nimble in identifying those problems and solving them. I believe we will see a rise in new ventures over the few years that will dwarf what we experienced after the last economic downturn. And, global challenges like climate change, automation, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity remain ever-present. We have the problems, now we need to support and guide our entrepreneurs forward.

The challenges we are facing, the innovations we are developing internally and externally are preparing each of us – students, faculty and staff members – to learn and lead by example. We will be ready to take advantage of tomorrow’s workplace environment because we have not let today’s obstacles stop us from moving forward.

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