Thousands of workers returning to downtown Edmonton expected to add to vibrancy this fall

Downtown Edmonton is bouncing back to life after almost 17 months of near-empty office buildings as thousands of people worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The pandemic isn’t over but governments and private businesses are bringing employees back to the workplace starting early September.

“That volume of employees downtown makes such a big difference,” said Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, adding that the workforce is a major part of the downtown vibrancy.

“We’re really keen to see the government employees from all levels of government come back downtown.”

The Alberta government is phasing in its workforce by Sept. 7.

About 30 per cent — or 1,320 people — working for the City of Edmonton employees are currently working downtown. But the city plans to have almost everyone back in person by Sept. 20, said spokesperson Catherine Kuehne.

Roughly 3,700 city staff are assigned to work in the downtown, she said.

The provincial government plans to phase out almost all COVID-19 measures by Aug. 16, including the mandatory self-isolation period for people with symptoms of COVID-19. 

The city still requires staff to wear masks and practice physical distancing and directs them to stay home if they are ill. 

“These are the measures in place until Sept. 20,” Kuehne said. “We’re reviewing what will be continued in the future.”

Hybrid model

Two of downtown Edmonton’s largest private sector employers are finalizing their back-to-work plans. 

Some 1,500 people work for Epcor in downtown locations. The utility company is reintegrating employees in stages but the goal is to have most staff back at their regular office space by the end of September, said spokesperson Laura Ehrkamp.

Epcor will keep assessing the COVID-19 situation, however, as employee health and safety is the top priority, she added. 

Meanwhile, Stantec has developed a hybrid model for its employees return to the office.

About 1,000 people work at the company’s downtown tower and roughly 950 of those employees have worked remotely through the pandemic.

Stantec will use a hybrid model for reintegration that allows employees to make arrangements with their supervisors, said Ashley Warnock, a Stantec public relations manager.

Stantec expects about half of its employees will be back in the office full-time come September, Warnock said.

Leanne MacKenzie and Maria Kaniouras work downtown and are looking forward to stores reopening, with more people returning to in-person work environments this fall. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

McBryan, of the Downtown Business Association, has heard most companies are working on flexible schedules for staff. 

“Every employer is trying to figure this out their own way, in a way that their employees are happy with, that gets people re-engaged,” she said. 

People accustomed to working from home will have to get used to commuting coming back downtown, figuring out things like parking and bus routes, she cited.

Downtown vibrancy

Workers already downtown are starting to venture out in the nice weather, especially to food hot spots like Rice Howard Way and 101st Street. 

Sumeet Saroin has been back in his office since May and welcomes the company. 

“Just seeing the people,” Saroin said. “I’ve been downtown for the last little while and you go for lunch, you go for coffee and there’s no one around.”

Maria Kaniouras, out with friends for lunch on Thursday, has been working in Manulife Place for nearly the entire pandemic but many colleagues have been based at home. 

“It’ll be nice to have most people back in the office, we miss everybody,” she said.

Kaniouras is also looking forward to shops and restaurants opening again, such as Sunterra in Commerce Place, which has been closed since December. 

“You miss all these vendors who’ve been your staple for however many years,” she said. “So hopefully everybody comes back.” 

Twitter: @natashariebe

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