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Toronto companies are finally starting to plan employees' return to the office

Though many feared (or hoped) that the work-from-home trend prompted by the pandemic would become a permanent way of life, many companies in Toronto are planning a return to the office as things open up.

With Ontario's vaccination rates continuing to hit impressive thresholds and the province now in Step 3 of its reopening framework, things are finally feeling nearly the way they did pre-COVID, with the resumption of most business operations and the return of things like large-scale events and restriction-free travel.

As such, CEOs are taking over office spaces they gave up earlier in the health crisis, many of them eyeing a hybrid model that will see employees physically turning up to work most, or at least part of the time.

A new report from the Toronto-based commercial real estate provider Avison Young shows that for the first time in more than a year, a glut of office space freed up and put on the sublet market due to COVID-19 is decreasing as brands take them over once more.

Though overall office vacancies in the city have risen quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year — hitting 7.3 per cent overall in Q2 2021, which is 0.2 per cent higher than the rate it was during the peak of the global financial crisis — available sublet space has fallen to 3.2 million square feet or 32 per cent as a proportion available space downtown, which is less than in Q1.

There are also a slew of office complexes under construction, with nearly 4.9 million square feet due to become available across the GTA by the end of next year — projects that suggest there is investor and developer faith that workers will be returning.

Huge companies such as Sun Life, RBC, and Apple have already released how they will approach return-to-work, all of them focusing on flexibility with some in-office days.

"The conversation among occupiers and landlords is changing," the report, which predicts a recovery of the commercial real estate market, reads.

"The possibilities of a hybrid workplace have helped shift occupiers' mindset from 'will we ever return to the office?' to 'when and how?'"

Meanwhile, politicians have been urging people who were forced out of work due to lockdown to get off CERB and back to the workplace ASAP, and commercial landlords are likewise calling on employers to get their people into the office again.

"What I'm hearing right now around the province everywhere everyday from numerous companies: they can't get people hired. They need people, but they're at home," Premier Doug Ford, for example. said at a media briefing last Friday.

"Folks, eventually we've got to get back to work and get things moving again.... we need to get the economy going."

The City of Toronto and the Toronto Region Board of Trade have even launched a new program to help businesses and their staff transition back into the groove of things through guide books with best practices and strategies.

And, many residents have already indicated that they're ready to return to an IRL work setting.

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