Ottawa's best companies are embracing remote work culture
This year's National Capital Region's Top Employers show that salary is no longer the be-all and end-all of compensation
As global pandemic conditions become the new normal for just about any company without a physical storefront, companies across Canada are racing to adapt faster than the competition.
One of the most prominent realities of the new labour market is that many companies are allowing their employees to work at least partially from home.
This year's National Capital Region's Top Employers competition shows that in this struggle, the most successful companies find ways to maintain efficiency while transitioning to a remote or hybrid work model. Among the region's top employers, there is a trend toward not just better compensation, but toward better work-life balance overall.
Hybrid work is becoming the most important perk of all
"Once upon a time, remote or hybrid work models were perks for the few, varying by seniority and role," says the competition's managing editor Richard Yerema. "Over two decades, we have watched them evolve along with communications technology to become more available and common in most industries."
This is easy to see in 2022's rankings, which feature many companies like Ottawa-based Shopify Canada, which has introduced a 'Digital by Default' program aimed at creating a "digital-first way of thinking, working and operating." Shopify's move looks to change the feel of remote work from secondary to primary -- not an alternative to regular work, but the new form of regular work, going forward.
Such company-wide efforts impact all employees, not just those at the top, and are changing the way that even entry-level recruiting is done. Chivon John, global wellness specialist at Shopify, says that the company "took a holistic approach to supporting employee wellbeing by recognizing that everyone would be experiencing this period differently." To bolster their recruiting, Shopify "created an approach that would be tailored to employees and their individual needs."
According to Yerema, access to remote work is an increasingly important variable in the war for talent over the past year.
Ottawa's unique culture leads to unique hiring practices
Ottawa's strong tech sector has left the city's workforce unusually well-positioned to adapt to the pandemic, with highly developed, existing work-from-home policies and an emphasis on the type of work that can be moved to remote locations.
Becky Canteri, chief people officer at Momentive, the creator of SurveyMonkey, says that before the pandemic less than 4% of the company's workforce was remote. "The pandemic gave us a window of opportunity. Our greatest challenge turned into our greatest gift: time. We learned, observed, and proved the ability of our team to be distributed and productive."
From Adobe to Momentive to any of a host of software services companies, Ottawa's tech sector is driving hiring more powerfully than that of any other Canadian city.
Additionally, Ottawa's strong public sector has always compounded the stiff level of competition, with Yerema calling its historical dominance the "defining characteristic of the region." Public sector jobs impact hiring throughout the regional market, being subject to minimum benefits levels and far less employment volatility -- and that can make for stiff competition with traditional companies.
To help it compete in such stiff competition, Adobe has transitioned toward a digital-first model, and reached out to employees to figure out what benefits and lifestyle changes will help them most. says Mike Scott, Adobe's Ottawa site director and senior director of customer care says that "many of [Adobe's] newest benefits, including company-wide wellbeing days came to be in response to employee feedback around needing time to unplug and recharge together."
Creative benefits beat pure compensation
This highlights a greater level of creativity in benefits-creation, one that emphasizes the use of company-specific benefits that no other employer could provide. Benefits can range from free home ownership advising from real estate companies to complementary gym membership from healthcare companies. In all things, employers are leaning into the types of value that only they can provide.
Beyond company-specific benefits, success in hiring in 2021 also came down to offering benefits that most people haven't seen before, including improved maternity leave benefits and the extension of parental leave benefits to new fathers.
The 2022 rankings for the National Capital Region's Top Employers show one thing: the end of salary as the be-all and end-all of compensation, and the end of compensation as the be-all and end-all of employment. Hybrid work emerged as the new differentiator, one that many companies have proven eager to explore.
Employers are increasingly aware that even in a job market dominated by tech titans, workers are the ones who will decide when, where, and how work gets done.
—Graham TempletonFrom the official announcement magazine for the National Capital Region's Top Employers (2022), co-published with the Ottawa Citizen on February 1, 2022. All rights reserved.
Top employers flex to retain top Ottawa talent
Entering year three of this 'new normal' means understanding the different priorities employees now have when making career choices
In the unique employment market of Canada's capital region, finding a job outside of politics has always held unique challenges, but 2021's combination of global and province-wide factors arguably presented the most uncertain hiring market yet. Still, that uncertainty may be benefiting Ottawa's workers as much as its big employers -- a trend that can be seen by looking at some of the most popular and successful companies in the country.
Each year, the Canada's Top 100 Employers competition releases its picks for the best employers in each province, analysing a wide range of factors to help applicants figure out which companies offer the best work environments. Now, National Capital Region's Top Employers for 2022 has arrived to highlight those companies that have continued to offer creative, competitive compensation and benefits packages even while dealing with a host of local and global difficulties.
The winners are chosen based on multiple criteria, including compensation and benefits, the work and social atmosphere, the quality of the physical workplace, training and upward mobility and community involvement -- all of which were pushed forward by a healthy level of competition between public- and private-sector employers.
"I think the past year has continued to present very difficult challenges for virtually all employers," said Richard Yerema, managing editor at Canada's Top 100 Employers. "We are now entering year three of this 'new normal,' compounding the difficulty of challenges like navigating new safety protocols and transitioning to remote or hybrid work."
In the nation's capital, public sector employers are major players
The public sector plays a bigger role in Canada's capital region than anywhere else in the country, and this has had a major impact on the behaviour of private-sector competitors.
"The dominance of the public sector," says Yerema, "is the defining characteristic of the region and the impacts are felt across all employers in the region." Public sector jobs are subject to minimum benefits levels, and far less employment volatility, and that can make for stiff competition with traditional employers.
This fact has forced the local private sector to stay aggressive to avoid brain-drain and affected their strategies for retaining talent as much as those for finding and acquiring it.
Dominic Laporte, assistant deputy minister for human resources and corporate services at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says that remote work has made this trend even more pronounced. "With the increased capability to perform many duties remotely, it has opened up more possibilities for staffing positions with candidates living outside of the National Capital Region… This will also push our department to continue to seek creative ways to maintain the invaluable in-person experience that cannot fully be replaced virtually."
When the going gets tough, the tough get creative
In a tough job market, employees can often suffer from depressed wages -- but as the last year played out, the market saw several examples of how hard economic conditions can instead lead to increased competition among employers. Some fast-food restaurants, for instance, have been forced to raise even low-end salaries in order to compete.
This trend is even more evident in higher-paying and more worker-focused industries like software development, where companies have to get creative to entice the province's top talent. These sorts of companies have leaned into the remote work paradigm, benefiting from the fact that most of their employees can easily transition their work to the home.
As power shifts somewhat to the candidate in more hiring interactions, employers have had to get creative to retain top talent. Attractive benefits packages can often seem to carry more value than they actually cost to deliver, while less standard offerings like increased flexibility in time-off can entice new workers for zero money down.
Megan Paterson, chief human resource officer of the supply chain tech company Kinaxis, says that, faced with the popularity and pandemic-driven necessity of hybrid work, they are allowing each employee to choose between multiple possible working styles: @home-full time, @office-full time, or @flex. They've even incorporated a system offering unlimited vacation. Paterson says that Kinaxis has also "placed a large focus on employee health and wellbeing-offering mental health training, as well as a variety of fitness activities and challenges."
What makes the best the best?
It seems that 2021 was the year in which it became impossible to ignore that building and maintaining strong teams in Ottawa comes down to being the best place to work -- and that means re-investing in those teams, themselves.
Supriya Edwards, director general at the Workforce and Workplace Branch of StatsCan, says that the agency makes a point to help team-members grow and become stronger employees — and candidates. "We nurture and grow our talent with our development programs, career assignment program, talent management plans, mentorship program, leadership development and language development activities." It turns out that even helping employees to move on someday can help keep them from moving on, right now.
The best employers derive their decisions about policies and the work environment from an understanding of what their employees want. Not all types of workers require the same things; younger workers might value pure compensation, for instance, while older workers with children might prioritize extra flex time.
Put simply, there is no one set of benefits that modern workers want; what they want is a company that listens to their feedback and takes whatever steps are necessary to let work integrate easily with the rest of life.
"Necessity often leads to innovation," Yerema says. "That includes everything from introducing greater work flexibility and new work from home policies, to enhancing support for physical and mental health, to emphasizing more open communication with senior leadership."
In the end, Canada's fortunes are Ottawa's fortunes
Nobody, not even public sector employers, can ignore the need to adapt to the changing employment market. Lyne Parent-Garvey, chief human resources officer at Hydro Ottawa, says that, as an employer without an existing work-from-home program, Hydro Ottawa "had to adapt quickly to ensure employees had the tools and technology to stay connected while working virtually. This included rolling-out Google Workspace to all employees, so (Hydro Ottawa) could leverage Meet and Chat for connection."
There was no one formula for success in the Ottawa business world in 2021, but an emphasis on employee experience was a component of every strategy that found meaningful success. By making an effort to offer unique and above all well-targeted benefits for employees, employers were able to stand out from the crowd and retain the best talent on the market.
In a world where pure salary varies by a smaller margin than ever, it's these less monetary differentiators that will determine where the best talent goes, and where it stays for more than just a while.