Study conducted by Laurier researchers finds most tech firms are planning to have employees return to office

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Researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics conducted a recent research study that found that 75 per cent of Ontario technology firms surveyed would opt to have a portion of employees return to work in office if COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were lifted tomorrow.

The Laurier research team had been surveying tech firms every six months as part of a two-year study before COVID-19 hit, which diverted their focus to pandemic-related challenges. 

“We’ve been doing that now for over a year, and as we were getting ready for our third round of data collection, [COVID-19] hit,” Nicole Coviello, a professor of marketing and the Lazaridis Chair in International Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said.

The study is featured in a report called “Coping with COVID: Insights from Canadian Tech Firms,” which was co-authored by Coviello and Laurier professors Sarah Wilner and Anne Domurath, along with Maria Rouziou, assistant professor of marketing at HEC Montreal.

“We carried on asking questions that were performance-related and business-related in terms of practice and strategies … but we also added in a bunch of COVID questions. So report three is focusing on the perceived impact of COVID in the organization on the people to performance in terms of Ontario high-tech firms,” Coviello said.

The research team looked at responses from top management teams in these organizations, as well as the employees, and focused on three core areas: sales, product and marketing development.

“They all perceived some impact in the sense that there were things that were harder to get used to and there were different ways of coping with COVID. But interestingly, overall, it looks like at least for the tech sector — and I really want to stress this as specific to young technology firms — performance is actually relatively stable,” Coviello said.

“And what I mean by that, is that between the periods of December last year and June-July this year, so that’s covering the whole window of time where COVID was just becoming an issue and then really, really an issue, productivity was up and performance in terms of sales revenue was lower than expected but not a lot lower. It was pretty much stable relative to December of last year.”

“Keep in mind that tech firms are all about growth, growth, growth. So expectations for growth are usually fairly high, and they had high expectations. Nothing drastic. And customer retention, which is really important especially when there’s a crisis in play, was holding stable. From a market and financial performance perspective, these tech firms were doing not great, not poorly, just kind of holding their own at this point and time,” she said.

Given the economic repercussions caused by the global pandemic so far, the results of this study were a “pleasant surprise,” according to Coviello.

“Having said that, people are people. There were people that were struggling more than others in terms of what they thought COVID meant for them and the things that they were having to get used to,” Coviello said.

“Ranging from a lack of social contact to [an] inability to meet with customers face to face, some are very personal, some are more business-related, to employees feeling a sense of isolation, managers feeling that they were having difficulty working with their teams in terms of ‘how do you motivate employees to work when you don’t see them?’ those kinds of things.”

“It looks like 75 per cent of companies reached in the July window of time were saying ‘we’re going to take a hybrid approach’ where it sounds like they’re going to be listening to employee preferences, and preferences can be different from personal circumstances … but companies are taking account of their employees,” she said.

Companies like Shopify and Opentech made strategic decisions about going remote back in the spring, but Coviello is unsure if working from home will become a new normal for businesses in the future as a result of the pandemic.

“I think there are companies who will say ‘this is actually working, suiting our employees, we’re still productive and let’s make this happen.’ On the other hand, I still think we have to wait and see what time tells us,” Coviello said.

*With files from Aaron Waitson.

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