Toronto mayor hopes more businesses bring back workers to downtown core

Thousands of Toronto’s civil servants are heading back to the office for the first time in two years this week, as part of a broader reopening of city buildings.

About 80 per cent of the city’s approximately 32,000 active employees perform essential functions and have been working outside of their homes throughout the pandemic.

But the remaining 20 per cent have been mostly remote since March, 2020.

As of today, many of those employees are returning to the office part time as part of a new hybrid working arrangement.

The city is also reopening all public areas at City Hall, North York Civic Centre, Scarborough Civic Centre, Etobicoke Civic Centre, York Civic Center and East York Civic Centre. It had previously reopened counter services on Feb. 22.

“I hope other businesses will follow our lead and I know from my meetings with major employers that most of them are, sometime over the next two or three weeks,” Mayor John Tory said during a press conference at city hall on Monday morning. “They say a lot of their employees want to come back, they certainly want them to come back and we’re doing this as they will do it with health and safety in mind”

The city had planned to welcome back most of its workers in January but ultimately delayed the return amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The return of some workers this week coincides with the lifting of the mask mandate in most settings.

The city has said that employees will not be required to wear masks at their workplace, in keeping with the provincial policy.

Masks, however, will continue to be mandatory in high-risk settings, including on public transit and in city-run long-term care homes.

All employees will also have to attest to being fully vaccinated in order to work in-person at city facilities.

This differs from the approach being taken by some other major employers who have signaled an intention to allow unvaccinated workers to return, including the Toronto District School Board and the Ontario Public Service.

Speaking with reporters inside the rotunda at city hall, Tory said that he is hopeful that the return of workers downtown will provide a boost to small businesses, many of whom had to “take out second mortgages on their homes” and turn to lines of credit to stay afloat during the early days of the pandemic.

He said that the return could also serve as important milestones as the city moves back to a “more normal” state after two years of pandemic restrictions that shuttered businesses and turned a previously bustling downtown into a ghost town.

“I know from when I had a different kind of job, when I was a lawyer or when I was a business executive, the ability to kind of pop two doors down the hall and poke your head into somebody’s office and ask them for advice on something was huge. Yes, you could do that on a screen and you could do it on the phone but it’s not the same,” Tory told reporters. “And from the employers perspective they talk about the mentorship that goes on that can’t really happen on the screen or on an iPad and they talk about the creation of a company culture within a workplace that is very difficult to achieve when people are remote .”

The city has previously said that it expects most of its hybrid workers to spend three days a week in the office.

City Manager Chris Murray said that the hybrid approach will be evaluated on a month by month basis but is likely to stick around in some form for the foreseeable future.

In fact, he pointed out that the city was already taking steps to reduce its real estate footprint prior to the pandemic and as part of that planned to have many of its employees spending more time working remotely.

“I think our view is let’s just take everything one day, one week, one month at a time to see how it’s working and make adjustments where we have to but I think the basic concept of hybrid has been well proven before this,” he said.

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