OMERS on Culture and the Future of Work

Satish Rai, Chief Investment Officer at OMERS, recently sat down with Nancy Nazer, Chief Human Resources Officer at OMERS, to discuss how they define culture, how they’re ensuring employees stay connected in a remote work environment and what OMERS is doing to take care of its people during and after the pandemic:  

Blake Hutcheson, CEO of OMERS, has said people are our most important asset. How does the firm define culture?

Gandhi once said, “Culture resides in the hearts and souls of its people.” When we think about a positive workplace culture, it starts with each of us individually. At OMERS and Oxford, our culture is our people. It’s truly a team effort and we are all accountable for it. Culture starts with what people do and how they do it when no one is watching. I have been in HR for two decades across different industries, working to figure out the secret to a great culture and what I’ve found is it’s not just about a clever strategy — it’s about the people. People differentiate good companies from great companies and are our competitive advantage to help sustain and grow our business and make our pension promise possible. So, as we think about our global teams, we have to continue to foster a culture of inclusivity that brings with it a sense of belonging every single day.

How do you continue to foster culture while people are working remotely on a large scale?

We are grounded in the belief that winning culture is formed not only in good times but also preserved in hard times. As we face this unprecedented global health crisis and all of the challenges that come with it, it’s even more important for us to continue to build trust, accountability and transparency among our people. As our world continues to shift as a result of the pandemic, we need to continue thinking about what makes us unique and find ways to stay connected so we can share the various realities and narratives we are going through. It’s important to think about the new activities we can do, and those we must not stop doing, to ensure that connectivity because, again, culture resides within each of us.

What is OMERS approach to working from home post-pandemic?

Ultimately, what it all comes down to is our people and their wellbeing. With that, we want to focus our post-pandemic approach on flexibility and choice. There has been widespread speculation that large-scale remote work is here to stay, but I don’t feel that this is the end of the physical office; just a new normal. There’s a lot of research that supports the notion that we all benefit from some form of social interaction, and while connecting virtually has served its purpose, the office allows for us to feed off the energy and creativity of one another. All of the great work we are undertaking now is helping us better understand how we can possess a safe, positive culture in a hybrid work model going forward.

How is OMERS putting the needs of its people first?

We truly believe our people are our greatest asset, our true differentiator, and we are intent on doing everything we can to support them. To that end, we are launching our new people strategy, which is focused on wellness, inclusion and investing in our people through their growth and development. These are streams that we are going to focus on extensively in the years to come.

Satish Rai: Over the past few weeks I have shared insights from conversations with leaders from across OMERS on the future of work in a post-pandemic world. One constant theme that has stuck out to me is that the traditional office, though it may look different, will still play a critical role in the future. Although it can be agreed that there will be some lasting change from COVID-19, in-person interaction is still needed to build relationships, spark creativity and enhance culture. To that last point, as Nancy pointed out, culture is built through each and every one of us, and the physical office allows for that connectivity to grow. 

I read this comment a couple of weeks ago and kept it on the back burner to reflect on it.

There are things I agree with and others I'm less in agreement with.

First, let me begin with something a friend of mine once told me: "Always remember, HR is NOT your friend".

It's not that HR departments are full of evil people conspiring against you, what my friend was trying to say and rightfully so, HR always looks after the best interests of the organization, that's their job.

Sure, HR is there to support its employees, after all, they are the most important assets of any organization, but at the end of the day don't kid yourselves, HR will always side with upper management and make sure the organization's interests come first.

Now, I don't know Nancy Nazer, Chief Human Resources Officer at OMERS, I'm sure she is very nice, smart and competent and agree with a lot of what she is saying. The reason I started my comment off like that, it's just that I find a lot of the younger employees are very naive when it comes to workplace culture, politics and dynamics.

Ms. Nazer raises a lot of excellent points on culture. It is about people, each and every employee has a responsibility to individually contribute positively to workplace culture.

And yes, people differentiate great companies from bad ones but that's a bit of a generic statement.

Anyone who has worked long enough anywhere knows it only takes one rotten apple to destroy workplace culture. 

It's typically one arrogant male jerk who was given way too much power and abuses that power. 

Are there women who abuse power? Of course there are and I've seen my share of toxic women too but if I'm objective and brutally honest, it's typically men who destroy workplace culture.

And even more honesty, workplace culture is hard to build, easy to destroy and it's not always a top-down problem.

Your colleagues are people and they come in all shapes and sizes with their own culture which was typically set at home. Some of them have "special personalities", some of them have way too much time on their hands and all they do is complain all day, some of them are competent but always sucking up to the boss and some of them are just ruthless and will stab you in the back the first chance they get. 

What I'm getting at is workplace toxicity comes in many forms and it is present at all organizations, it might be worse in some groups and it's not always the manager's fault.

That brings me to my second point, when Ms. Nazer states this:

"There’s a lot of research that supports the notion that we all benefit from some form of social interaction, and while connecting virtually has served its purpose, the office allows for us to feed off the energy and creativity of one another. All of the great work we are undertaking now is helping us better understand how we can possess a safe, positive culture in a hybrid work model going forward."

I don't dispute there's a lot of research that finds there are benefits to social interactions that can only come at the office, but what about the benefits of not being at the office?

Jack and Joe are working in the same group. Jack is an extrovert, a loud and obnoxious jock, loves talking sports with his boss and colleagues, goes to lunch with them and grabs drinks with colleagues after work but he's always complaining about how underpaid he is and even becomes harassing at times, pressuring his team to do more so he can pressure his boss to get paid more.

Meanwhile, Joe is an introvert, likes doing his analysis in peace and quiet, prefers to eat lunch alone, doesn't go for drinks and definitely doesn't like interacting with Jack and is even afraid of him. He generally enjoys his job however he can't deal with office politics and it's getting to him. However, he can't quit because he's quietly suffering from Crohn's disease and needs an income to support his family, so he puts up with office politics and Jack's rants even though it causes him a lot of anxiety.

The same thing with Susan and Mary who work together. Susan works hard, goes to the gym every morning, dresses to kill, is a go-getter, but is also very cutthroat and constantly complaining. She however is a perfect hypocrite, praising her superiors and demeaning her work colleagues every chance she gets. Mary is a sweet and shy lady in her late thirties who was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She is suffering from severe anxiety as she tries to cope with her illness and is frightened if anyone finds out, she will be terminated. She tries to steer clear of Susan but has to work with her.

I purposely made up these examples to make a point, quite often working at the office isn't all it's cracked up to be and while there are definitely benefits, take it from me, there are big drawbacks too, especially if you're working with the wrong people. 

I know many people like Joe and Mary and unfortunately, I've also encountered the Jacks and Susans.

The minute you put people together in a work environment, good things happen but oftentimes, toxicity develops. 

What else? It isn't lost on me that any form of workplace harassment and discrimination is much harder to do when people are working remotely. It's not impossible but much harder.

In many ways, working remotely levels the playing field for all employees, it's much easier to focus on output and strong competencies, much harder to be influenced by other subjective factors.

What else? Inclusion is a big theme these days. It's not just about diversity, nowadays the focus is on more inclusive workplaces. 

Some institutional investors have started a movement signing the Canadian Investor Statement on Diversity & Inclusion to pressure companies to promote more diverse and inclusive workplaces:

Great, right? Who doesn't want that? 

Well, I have a few issues with this. First, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. 

Before you point the finger at any company, make sure you practice what you preach, fostering and promoting diversity and inclusion at all levels of your own organization. Back this up with publicly available statistics with each and every annual report.

Second, while I know there is systemic racism on Black and Indigenous communities and People of Colour in Canada and globally, if you look at the cold, hard facts, the worst discrimination taking place at all workplaces is on people with disabilities

And ironically, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem as more people with disabilities fall through the cracks and are being shunned altogether from potential contract work.

In a real just society, the focus would always be on helping our most vulnerable citizens no matter what.

I'm afraid to say that we are falling short of this goal, especially when it comes to people with disabilities.

That's why I take all this "workplace culture" and "benefits of working closely at the office" with a grain of salt. 

If this pandemic taught us anything, it's that remote working is possible and it truly opens the doors for organizations to promote workplace diversity and inclusion to everyone, including people with disabilities.

And not just people with physical disabilities, it's also people with developmental disorders. CBS 60 Minutes did a great segment on companies recruiting talent on the autism spectrum. You can watch it here.

These workers with autism are adding to the bottom line, their attention to detail is high, but the segment shows how the traditional HR interview is biased against them. 

Much to their credit, at the global accounting firm Ernst & Young, they've scrapped the traditional interview process for applicants with autism. They've replaced it with a series of problem-solving challenges.

That's an example of real inclusion and diversity. Unfortunately, it's not the norm. 

Where am I going with all this? While I agree with a lot of points Satish Rai and Nancy Nazer raise, there are inherent biases in some of their statements and points and I'm not sure they realize it.

I understand, OMERS is a large pension, it invests in office properties through its real estate subsidiary, Oxford Properties, it's only normal they want things to get back to normal fast so people go back to work at their office. 

But even they realize the new normal means a hybrid model of remote work and offices and that means some potential pain ahead for their office properties.

However, it also opens up new possibilities to attract talent from all over the country to help them shape the future of OMERS.

In other words, it's not all bad, but it is challenging.

Even OMERS CEO Blake Hutcheson told me "it's hard building culture remotely".  

He's right, it's hard but not impossible and I think it's a generational thing as younger millennials are more comfortable interacting remotely or through dedicated chat lines. 

Pensions and all organizations need to get up to speed with building cyber culture. 

By the way, Blake Hutcheson just penned a short comment on Linkedin on taking stock on what matters:

In challenging times, we take stock of what matters. This year has reminded me how important genuine and deep relationships are in life, and in business. Of course, I treasure the relationships I have with my family and friends; but also with so many of you in the Canadian and global business community, where this year the words, “friendship” and “partnership” have never been more meaningful. Early in my career a wise elder statesman in the real estate community once whispered said to me: “Blake, business travels at the speed of trust. Never forget it”. I never have and in my view, trust starts with true friendship. The year 2020 has underscored these sentiments more than any other year in my career. You know who you are (many of whom I have the privilege of working with) and THANK YOU on behalf of OMERS and Oxford – and me personally!

At this time of deep reflection, I also wanted to acknowledge my long-time friend and colleague, John Ruffolo. His recent bike accident may have shaken John’s world, but his professional courage, ambition and continued commitment to drive innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Canada remain both unbattered and totally inspirational. John, I speak for so many when I say – thanks for the friendship, I am here for you, and I join an entire community who is rooting for you and your amazing family.

I am hopeful that 2020 will soon be behind us, metaphorically and actually, and that much goodness will have come from it. Including a refreshed appreciation of the delicate and inextricably connected world around us, and the importance of what really matters. We all need to succeed and to prevail over our COVID setbacks and we will, but let’s do it with a renewed commitment to friendship, trust and each other.

This a great short comment, it's not wordy but it says it all in a powerful, concise and empathetic way.

What happened to John Ruffolo is tragic and we are all praying for him. It can happen to anyone and while he is privately dealing with this and working toward adapting to his new normal, it helps a lot reading supportive comments from a long-time friend.

It also helps "build workplace culture" when employees at OMERS read how grateful their boss is and that he's thinking of them. It really doesn't take much. 

Anyway, I've rambled on way too much again but needed to tackle these issues and express my opinions. 

I don't pretend to have the monopoly of wisdom on workplace culture or diversity & inclusion, I'm just trying to bring some fresh perspective. 

Below, the pandemic has been particularly hard for Canadians with disabilities. More than a third (36%) have reported job losses or reduced working hours since March. Disability advocate and journalist Kevin McShan is one of them, and he recently appeared on CTV's Your Morning discussing what he wants the federal government to do to spur economic opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Kevin also recently interviewed Meggie Stewart, Siobhan Costelloe and Jackie Moore on how Ready, Willing and Able develops inclusive and effective labor markets. Watch it below, it's an excellent discussion.

Third, many adults with autism have a hard time finding a job, but more companies are discovering the unique skills and potential people with autism offer. Anderson Cooper reports on CBS 60 Minutes.

Lastly, the pandemic has put many working moms in an impossible situation – doing their own jobs as well as those of teachers and childcare workers, on top of housework – and some women are finding their careers in jeopardy as they balance the demands from employers with their children's needs. Correspondent Rita Braver hears from working mothers who describe a climate of discrimination, and examines how this challenging new work dynamic may actually set back advances that have been made in bringing equality to the workplace.

I saw this Sunday morning and found it outrageous. Large pensions and other big institutional investors need to voice their concerns over this disgusting workplace discrimination on mothers during the pandemic. Let's focus more on the "S" in "ESG"!