Most Shopify employees won’t return to office after coronavirus pandemic, CEO says

Click to play video: 'Some Shopify employees will work from home permanently: CEO'
Some Shopify employees will work from home permanently: CEO
WATCH: Shopify's CEO announced Thursday most employees won’t return to the office after the pandemic and instead will be working remotely. Erica Vella has details – May 21, 2020

Employees at Shopify will continue to work from home even after the novel coronavirus pandemic ends, the booming Canadian tech giant announced Thursday.

The e-commerce platform developer, headquartered in Ottawa with more than 5,000 employees in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, Vancouver and around the world, will keep its offices closed until the end of 2021 to prepare for the company’s permanent work-for-home reality, CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted Thursday morning.

When those offices do reopen, most employees will continue to work from home.

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“Shopify is a digital by default company,” Lutke tweeted.

“Office centricity is over.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus and the workplace'
Coronavirus and the workplace

Shopify, which surpassed more than 1,000 employees in its hometown of Ottawa last year and briefly overtook RBC as Canada’s most valuable company on the Toronto Stock Exchange a few weeks ago, was an early adopter of remote working amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The company asked its entire staff to work from home starting March 11, with Lutke noting then that a large portion of the company’s workforce already worked remotely.

Lutke said in his tweets Thursday that every Shopify employee will now have the same experience no matter where they work.

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He noted it will also help the company connect to the merchants it serves, as many direct-to-consumer businesses that use the Shopify platform to power their online stores also work from home.

Lutke said Shopify hasn’t figured out all the details yet around operating a remote-first business but that the company has always been good at change.

Shawn Hamilton, a senior vice-president with real estate services firm CBRE in Ottawa, tells Global News that the local e-commerce giant has long been a trendsetter in the city’s office market, and if anyone can make a leap like this work, it’s Shopify.

“If it were any other company I would take it as a venting of frustration. But these guys have always been the thin edge of the wedge in leading the way,” Hamilton says.

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The technology to enable a fully remote operation is already in place, Hamilton says, but what will make or break Shopify’s remote experiment is the sociological dimensions of working in an office and meeting others face to face.

In other words, the coronavirus pandemic has proven tech companies can work from home — now they have to decide if they really want to.

Lutke’s decision to have employees permanently work remotely comes after Shopify started beefing up its real estate with a new office in Toronto at the King Portland Centre, steps away from the company’s first office in Canada’s largest city.

It also announced that it would lease about 23,597 square metres (253,995 square feet) of space at The Well complex in Toronto to be built at Front Street West and Spadina Avenue.

In January, the company said it would open its first permanent office in downtown Vancouver at the Four Bentall Centre by late 2020.

And back in Ottawa, Shopify operates from its 150 Elgin St. headquarters with another office around the corner at 234 Laurier Ave.

But what will happen to these offices if Shopify no longer needs to fill them with employees?

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In a statement to Global News, a Shopify spokesperson said the company will be “re-designing” its existing offices and is “committed to retaining recruitment hubs” in its major Canadian markets.

Should Shopify opt to downsize any of its offices in downtown Ottawa, Hamilton believes there will be sufficient demand to snap up any vacant space.

New private-sector players with a “different philosophy” on office space might take over a few floors from the e-commerce firm, or the federal government, which was already growing in size before the pandemic hit, could swoop in to boost its own downtown portfolio, he suggests.

While Shopify has been a trendsetter for years to other urban tech companies in Ottawa, Hamilton suggests other startups tread carefully before tearing up their leases.

“I would caution companies to make changes, not borne out of frustration, but because it is a strategic, measured complement to their business,” he says.

Shopify’s latest news comes just a day after it unveiled a slew of new products to support merchants through the COVID-19 pandemic during its online Reunite conference.

The company’s stock now regularly reaches more than $1,000 in trading, and the company says more than one million businesses now use its offerings.

— With files from Canadian Press

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Click to play video: 'Shopify continues to grow amid Toronto’s evolving tech scene'
Shopify continues to grow amid Toronto’s evolving tech scene

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