Laid-back Toronto turns up the volume on workplace change

Canadians have a reputation for reticence, but WORKTECH Toronto 2017 suggested that major transformations just around the corner will give the city's real estate community much to crow about

The Canadian workplace industry does a nice line in self-deprecation and understatement. It doesn’t puff out its chest and it’s apt to argue that the most important things are usually happening elsewhere.

But on the evidence the 2017 edition of WORKTECH Toronto, which combined a masterclass at the new Deloitte office on 31 October with a one-day event at lawyers McCarthy Tétrault on 1 November, such reticence is now out of place. That is because Toronto has upped its game with new ideas, new projects and a whole new attitude, even as its major players try to play the whole thing down.

‘Toronto has upped its game even as its major players try to play the whole thing down…’

No project epitomises Toronto’s raised aspirations more successfully that Deloitte House in the Bay Adelaide Centre, which was the subject of detailed analysis at WORKTECH Toronto from several angles. Deloitte partner and real estate leader Sheila Botting was typically unassuming: ‘We Canadians are behind the curve in advancing from the cube farm and perimeter offices, ’ she explained. ‘We’re conservative, we won’t invest until other people have done it.’ But invest they have – and the results at Deloitte are spectacular.

Raised aspirations

The interior design by Arney Fender Katsalidis has an accent on such concepts as ‘Deloitte on display’, wellbeing, flexibility, faceted objects and a linked landscape. Sophisticated environmental graphics from Entro enhance the project, in an approach described by project director Rae Lam as ‘more than just icing on the cake’.

The digital infrastructure is no less impressive. Its unified smart services represent a shift from the smart building that is adaptive to the cognitive building that is predictive. According to Deloitte’s Debbie Baxter, the aim is ‘to close the digital experience gap’ for new recruits arriving at the company fresh from the highly connected university campus.

Deloitte in Canada has flipped its business model from accounting to consulting, explained Sheila Botting, and its workplace strategy has been flipped too in the war for digital talent. But while Deloitte’s progressive new HQ certainly caught the mood of change, it was not the only sign of fresh momentum at WORKTECH Toronto.

Boosting group creativity

David Martin, the Canadian entrepreneur and inventor of the interactive whiteboard in education, discussed the role of technology in boosting group creativity. Academic and Collabogence founder Peter Smit gave the latest update on his research to measure collaborative performance. Lawyer Carole Piovesan of host McCarthy Tétrault assessed how AI is likely to reshape the future of work. And Lorri Rowlandson, the ‘resident mad scientist’ at Brookfield Global, shared ways to use gamification to create a more sustainable workplace.

Everywhere you looked on the horizon, some new big disruptive force was taking form. This might be a new and unsettling phenomenon for Toronto’s real estate traditionalists – but, as Lorri Rowlandson observed, ‘now is not the time to be boring’. The City of Toronto has even teamed up with the Google company Sidewalk Labs to create an entire digital district on a prime eastern waterfront site comprising 800 acres of land, according to a global review of smart precincts presented at the conference.

Closing the gap

Canada has looked enviously in the past at the US workplace, where the pace is faster and productivity higher. But the message at WORKTECH Toronto from US-based speakers was that the gap could be closed quickly with the right ideas about people, place and technology implemented.

Melissa Marsh of Plastarc (based in New York) spoke about what makes a ‘hot city’ and praised Toronto’s growth as a tech hub; Chris McGoff of The Clearing (Washington DC) shared ways to move the needle towards a peak-performance culture; Sam Dunn of Robin (Boston) looked at the implications of greater automation and connectivity; and Mark Galbraith of Liquidspace (San Francisco) argued that we have reached ‘peak office’ and are now entering the ‘great era of unbuilding’.

At the conference’s close, the overall effect was clear. As much the unexcitable Canadians will try to dampen expectations, Toronto is undeniable embracing the smart new ideas.

Speaker Interviews

David Martin, Chairman and CTO, Nureva, Canada

Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny, Partner, SITU Studio, USA

Click here for the WORKTECH Toronto 2017 review site.
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