Opening the floodgates: Toronto turns onto a wave of new ideas

Even Canada’s safe, conservative commercial heartlands are facing disruption, according to the WORKTECH Toronto 2016 conference

Sane, stable and sensible, Toronto’s central business district is probably the last place you’d expect to find shocks to the workplace system. But even at the core of Canada’s commercial heartland, disruptive forces starting to make an impact, according to speakers at the latest WORKTECH Toronto conference, held 1 November 2016 and hosted by real estate lawyers McCarthy Tetrault

Right from the start there was a sense that, for Canadians, it can no longer be a case of business as usual. Lorri Rowlandson of Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions struck the first blow to the status quo, deriding the failure of space design to decisively boost productivity despite recent, obsessive focus on the subject.

Designers did a good job of employee engagement at the outset of a project, said Rowlandson, but didn’t follow through after design implementation with change management schemes that might influence productivity. The result was that clients were unsure what their workplace redesign schemes had actually achieved. Her remedy: a ‘happiness index’ to measure employee wellbeing as individual performance is critical to improving productivity.

Addressing lack of trust

Academic and researcher Peter Smit of Collabogence cast a similarly unfavourable light on conventional design processes when he discussed ways to improve collaboration.

Smit presented research that showed only 4 per cent of people considered space to be the most important factor in effective collaboration, far behind lack of common vision and objectives (47 per cent), lack of trust (32 per cent), wrong skillsets (9 per cent) and wrong technology (8 per cent). His remedy: a collaboration wheel that allows organisations to measure and balance the key factors as well as build clusters, create individual profiles and reconfigure space for collaboration.

If organisations need to change the way they work, then so do entire cities. David Potter, Director of WORKshift, a not-for-profit economic development agency that advises Canadian cities on how to implement flexible working, explained how Calgary had benefited from a new, all-encompassing approach that includes making the business case for flexible working, strategy, communication, governance, change management and measurement.

Sixty-five per cent of Canadian businesses that offer remote or flexible working, said Potter, report increased productivity. His message was that ten years ago, flexible working just tinkered with the start and end of the working day – today it is integral to cities going through change. When Calgary recently suffered a flood, it coped well because it had already adapted its work practices to be more flexible.

Torrent of new concepts

Indeed, once the floodgates opened at WORKTECH Toronto, the torrent of new ideas didn’t stop. Melissa Marsh of New York-based consulting Plastarc argued that, in an age when real estate costs are going up but tech costs are going down, every office building should have its own Chief Technology Officer to harness the data emerging from digital transformation to improve workplace experience.

The intellectual challenge, explained Marsh, was to integrate big data that tends to be abstract with the small, anecdotal stories that tend to be specific and give flavour to a particular workplace. This was a point echoed by Matthew Claudel, MIT researcher and product manager at start-up BECO, who called for ‘a new class of architectural analytics’ as a result of buildings collecting more data on presence and performance.

You could feel the tectonic plates starting to move even under Canada’s rock-solid financial services.  A panel with Nadia Farah of Bank of Montreal, Colleen Baldwin of Scotiabank and Vanessa Perdue of Royal Bank of Canada probed such issues as the digital customer experience, increases in regulation and competition to recruit tech talent. Their conclusion: more agile strategies are required as the pace of change accelerates.

Add in a masterly discourse on why Dickensian office leases need to be reformed to meet the needs of modern tenants by McCarthy Tetrault lawyer Abraham Costin, and a closing address on the disruptive impact of co-working on corporate real estate by Kane Willmott, co-founder of IQ Offcie Suite, and any sense of Canadian aloofness or complacency towards workplace change was comprehensively dispelled.

‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’

WORKTECH Toronto 2016 was chaired by Didhiti Bhoumik, who quoted computer interface pioneer Alan Kay’s remark that ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’. On the basis of this event, the Canadian office community is up for the challenge.

Click here for the WORKTECH Toronto 2016 review site.

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