Canada’s largest technology park is unveiling a new physical space for companies to collaborate in Ottawa, a testament to the local business community’s confidence in the future of in-person work on the same day Ontario issues a province-wide stay-home order in the coronavirus pandemic.
Dubbed Hub350, the new space will be a gathering point for executives, academics and prospective business partners working in the Kanata North tech park in Ottawa’s west end.
Opening its first phase in the summer of 2021, Hub350 will eventually take up the full ground floor at 350 Legget Dr., the original home of Ottawa tech enterprise Mitel.
The space will be designed by Linebox Studios, a well-known design firm in the Ottawa tech scene responsible for Shopify’s downtown offices.
But for Shopify and many other tech firms across the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown the future of in-person work into question.
The Ottawa e-commerce firm was among the first globally to tell its employees to work from home in March at the onset of the pandemic, and later declared it would go digital-by-default, rapidly downsizing its physical office spaces in the process.
And Thursday morning, the Ontario government pushed the needle further in the remote direction with a new stay-home order, asking any employee that can work from home to do so in an effort to curb the province’s surging COVID-19 figures.
But even as industry and government forces push one way, Ottawa’s west-end tech community has been pushing for a return to doing business in person, says Jamie Petten, the executive director of the Kanata North Business Association.
The business association, which has secured a special economic district designation for the tech park from the City of Ottawa, started surveying its 540 member companies in 2019 on how to build connections within the community.
The idea, at its core, is that the better connected Kanata North companies are to each other, local universities and industry partners, the better off each player would be.
“The feedback has been quite consistent across the board,” Petten tells Global News. “Post-pandemic, they’re looking for a space to collaborate, to connect. A town hall, in a sense.”
The Hub350 project is sponsored by a few yet-unnamed backers, including partners in the financial services sector who could connect Kanata North companies to much-needed capital to scale their operations.
Companies can also take advantage of the hub’s meeting spaces to connect with each other or prospective customers visiting the site.
While Petten says every company in the park has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — she especially highlights the small businesses like restaurants — Ottawa’s tech sector has been one of the pillars that has kept the city’s economy afloat through COVID-19 uncertainty.
Ottawa’s unemployment rate stood at 6.6 per cent in December, among the lowest of large Canadian cities, thanks largely to robust public sector and tech employment, despite a relative drop off in tech jobs towards the end of 2020.
The pandemic has proven a digital-by-default approach can work for the Shopifys of the world, and savings on pricey real estate costs can make the prospect of largely virtual operations attractive.
But Petten believes that just because tech companies can operate remotely, it doesn’t mean they will want to, for the simple reason that many would rather not build a relationship from behind a screen — even if it means doing so behind a mask.
“While I think the virtual aspects that we’ve all experienced are here to stay, when we come out of this pandemic, having a space to reconnect with one another in a human way, I think, will be really important,” she says.