What will back-to-work look like? Jacques Goulet, president of Sun Life Canada, told staff to decide for themselves

What will back-to-work look like? Jacques Goulet, president of Sun Life Canada, told staff to decide for themselves

Photo by Daniel Neuhaus

Sun Life was one of the first large companies to announce a flexible back-to-work policy. How will it all work?
Our employees can choose where they want to work from, with no minimum or maximum days in either place. At the start of the pandemic, I wasn’t sure the work-from-home model would work, but 16 months later, my thinking has evolved. A lot of that evolution is due to feedback from employees.

Like what?
Many appreciated not having to commute and being able to regain that time to use for work or to spend with family. On the flip side, we had younger employees who live in small apartments with roommates and found it hard to concentrate, or parents with children who had trouble balancing it all.

Sun Life employs about 12,000 people in Canada. Any guess as to what percentage will work from where?
I think most people will choose a bit of both, and that flexibility is the whole point. There are some occasions—brainstorming sessions, for example, when everyone is putting ideas on a whiteboard—where it’s better to have everyone in the same space, so I think people will come in for those. But if you need to spend four hours writing a report on your own, that’s something you can do at home.

What about the social aspect of the workplace?
I was just doing a virtual coffee with one of our junior employees who was saying how much she misses spending time with her team—everyone going down to Starbucks to grab a coffee. She’s looking forward to getting back to that but also to spending some days at home. I think that will be typical of most employees.

With a reduced need for office space, will Sun Life offload any real estate?
Not at this point, and in fact we’re planning to spend more on our offices to make them more attractive to employees. We’re investing in technology to make hybrid meetings as seamless as possible, and we’re testing meeting-room configurations—theatre-style, for example—to see what works best.

Some employers are hesitant about staff working from home because it’s harder to track productivity. Is that a concern for you?
If people are determined to slack off, they’re going to slack off at the office, too. Plus, we already know we can maintain productivity because we have 16 months of evidence. At the end of the day, by trusting our employees, we’re empowering them to produce their best work.

What has the reaction to the news been like? Have you been inundated with “World’s Best Boss” mugs?
People have been very enthusiastic, and that’s important to us. The other thing is that the pandemic has created shifts in the labour market. In the past, if one of our people got a competitive job offer in Vancouver, that would mean moving and uprooting their life. That’s no longer the case, so we’re looking at a vastly expanded job market, which means attracting and retaining talent is a real priority. Our flexible approach helps us with being an employer of choice.

Not all of your fellow bigwigs are on the same page. An American bank CEO said that people who aren’t back in the office this fall can expect pink slips.
I know the bank you’re referring to. In a general sense, an overly rigid approach to these things can lead to employees looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Will you insist that in-office employees show proof of vaccination?
We’re currently talking about that and listening to the guidelines from public health.

What has your own pandemic work experience been like?
I’ve been working from home since March 2020, but I’ve been in the office four times total for essential purposes.

And you’re still president.
Ha, right. My wife and I live downtown on the waterfront, so we’ve spent a lot of time walking. My 19-year-old son was with us. He did his first year of university from home, which was disappointing for him, but I loved spending time with him.

Going forward, do you see yourself more as #TeamOffice or #TeamWFH?
The plan for me and our executive team is to do both. That sends a signal. We can say we value flexibility, but if all our senior people are in the office every day, the message will be mixed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.