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Ottawa-based co-working company TCC sublets swath of Shopify’s unused offices

The Corporate Centre has signed a deal to take six floors of space in Shopify's office spaces at 150 Elgin St. in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

An Ottawa-based company that provides flexible office space has struck a deal to take over six floors from Shopify at 150 Elgin St. after the e-commerce giant announced last year, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, that its thousands of employees would work remotely going forward.

The Corporate Centre (TCC) announced Thursday it will sublease 100,000 square feet of space at Performance Court on Elgin Street, just across the road from Ottawa’s courthouse and City Hall.

The deal will nearly double the TCC’s footprint in Ottawa overnight. The company already operates five other co-working spaces around Ottawa, ranging from the downtown core to Kanata North, and expanded to Vancouver a few years ago.

Sean Cochrane, TCC’s president, tells Global News that the deal his company has struck with Shopify means it could take more of the existing space over time if demand rises.

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“Essentially, they’ve given us the keys to the kingdom,” he says.

“Pretty much as much space as there is, we’re able to rent. So based on demand as we turn the corner in this pandemic, this space could be as big as 170,000 square feet if things really take off.”

Shopify first announced it would be vacating the majority of its permanent office space in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. CEO Tobi Lutke said in May 2020 that the company will be “digital by default” with the “vast majority” of its now-more than 7,000 employees worldwide working remotely.

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“Office centricity is over,” Lutke declared then.

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But while Cochrane admits to having a flash of fear in that moment that everyone would work from home forever and he’d be out of a job, he tells Global News that he was more struck by the opportunity Shopify would provide by putting some of the most well-known offices in Ottawa back on the market.

“More importantly, I thought, ‘What an incredible space,’” he says.

Though it’s now Canada’s largest public company by market cap, Shopify’s main Ottawa office space has long exemplified the energy of a tech startup, with a slide to take people from one floor to another and an in-house go-kart track.

Though he knows the return to work post-pandemic is anything but set in stone, Cochrane has confidence that when companies do decide to give offices another go, they’ll be looking for the kinds of engaging and collaborative spaces that Shopify became known for rather than typical “workstation farms.”

The thing that will lure workers back to the office is a feeling of actually wanting to be in a space rather than feeling forced, he says.

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“Walking into something that was like that was a dream come true,” he says of touring the company’s space in Performance Court.

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Co-working provides certain advantages for companies looking to dip their toes back in the commercial real estate market, Cochrane argues.

The “flexible” nature of co-working arrangements means companies such as tech firms can rework their space based on their evolving needs, be it a sudden downsize, scaling up or a general sense from employees that working-from-home, well, worked.

“Especially in times of uncertainty, why would you lock yourself in for a decade if you have no idea what’s ahead?”  Cochrane asks.

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While vaccinations are progressing steadily across Ottawa and the rest of the province, Cochrane acknowledges that a vaccine might not be a cure-all for workers’ fears about congregating post-pandemic.

He pitched TCC’s array of modular co-working options — be they private, semi-private or fully open seating arrangements — as a way for companies to gauge employee sentiment on the future of work.

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“I think the pandemic has shaken things up so much that flexibility of your work life will be so key.”

The decision to take up the coveted Shopify space is also a bet on the future of the downtown, which in many Canadian cities has been lacking animation for the past year.

Cochrane believes his company’s announcement, like the recent signal from the City of Ottawa that it plans to phase workers back into offices over the course of the year, could be a boon to retailers and restaurants along Elgin, which before the pandemic had their businesses significantly disrupted by long-term construction to revitalize the main street.

“Seeing the mayor announce that the city has a plan to start getting back into the office and seeing options like this come out, I think it’s going to spur a bit of action,” he says.

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