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Reports of the office tower’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In March 2023, we dispatched documentary photographer Jon Laytner, known for his candid slice-of-life images, to a new generation of corporate headquarters whose success will prove critical to the future of the downtown business district as we know it.

What he found was something strangely familiar: desks — ones with people doing actual, focused work at them. Of course, in a modern business environment, desks are just part of the equation, rounded out by dynamic social areas (like the fourth-floor tenant lounge that Gensler designed for CIBC Square, below) or calming wellness amenities (see: the Vitamin D light therapy and sound therapy rooms that HOK envisioned for Boston Consulting Group).

But if you thought the cubicle was destined to disappear altogether, replaced by laid-back co-working spaces and living room couches (which, to be clear, are still hosting more than their share of Zoom meetings), guess again. Classic workstations are alive and well. Maybe that colleague who’s constantly peering over their monitor to bug you isn’t going anywhere after all. But on the other hand, maybe it’s nice to see them again.

A group eats lunch in an office tower's communal social lounge, The Canopy. Part of a photo series about the return to office in Toronto.
CIBC Square

The Canopy, a tenant lounge that Gensler designed at 81 Bay Street, opened in June 2022.

“It’s businesslike, but with a hospitality feel — mimicking a hotel lobby to act as that ‘third space’ between office and home. Increasingly, employees want an ecosystem that provides the right mix of experiences.”

— Joy Charbonneau, design director, Gensler Toronto

Two people exercise in a fitness room with a series of stationery bikes and colourful yoga balls.

The Current, another CIBC Square tenant amenity designed by Gensler, is a 1,300-square-metre fitness centre that looks out to Toronto’s Financial District.

“The gym is there for you whenever it works. You might get your break at 10:30 am, or you might get it at 2:00 pm, but either way you can grab your gym bag and sneak out in between meetings. It’s really about working this into your schedule.”

— Joy Charbonneau, design director, Gensler Toronto

People sit at curved desk terminals underneath a series of pleated lamps. A row of green plants sits in the foreground. Part of a photo series about the return to office in Toronto.
Boston Consulting Group

The consulting firm’s Toronto office operates as a hybrid workforce.

HOK designed its new 9,290-square-metre space at 81 Bay Street (opened in May 2022) with both individual and collaborative tasks in mind.

Anchored by a sun-soaked two-storey atrium, the project also reflects a strong overall focus on social connection and wellness considerations like natural light.

A man drinks a soda underneath a ceiling of rippled light fixtures in an office filled with computer terminals. Part of a photo series about return to office in Toronto.

“They’re seeing higher rates in the office than pre-pandemic. Whether it’s leadership or junior staff, people want to be there — they do their best work there. The office needs to be a place where people can feel revitalized and understand ‘I am working for something bigger than just my day-to-day activity.’ ”

— Caitlin Turner, director of interiors, HOK Canada

A man leans over to talk to his colleague from behind a computer screen. Part of a series about return to office in Toronto.

In April 2022, the technology company consolidated three Toronto offices into a 5,850-square-metre Gensler-designed headquarters at 16 York Street.

Some 350 bookable desks allow employees to come in for heads-down work when it suits them, while flexible spaces serviced by a dedicated concierge team can expand or contract to host client meetings and team social events of varying sizes.

“The cohort returning to work in the biggest numbers is young people. Maybe because they’re living in smaller quarters, but also because they’re seeking interactions — friendships, mentorships and connections. When you score high on employee experience, you score high on employee engagement.”

— Annie Bergeron, design director, Gensler Toronto

A man sits on a leather sofa, with only his head visible. On the walls are colourful art posters. The mechanical ducts are exposed.
East Room

East Room opened a communal office at 50 Carroll Street in 2014, welcoming freelancers by day and hosting members-only events by night.

Furnished with vintage sofas, its 6,500-square-metre space has proved a post-pandemic hit with companies looking to scale back their real estate while maintaining some physical presence. A second location opens this year.

“As a service-oriented commercial real estate business, we’re very focused on hospitality and design. Traditionally, you’re siloed within your own company culture, but we want to build a bigger social community. Our current location’s venue space doubles as a concert hall, and our new location will have a rooftop café and bar.”

 Derreck Martin, president, East Room

A man cradles his infant daughter while typing on a laptop on his navy sofa in his living room. The drapes are yellow, and there is a plant hanging above him.

Not everyone is going back to the office. After ending its lease during the pandemic, Office/Bureau continues to operate as a fully remote creative studio.

For co-founders and husbands John Ryan and Jacob Sharrard, that means working out of their Dovercourt Village home while raising their two young kids. Here, Jacob sends emails while cradling a sleepy Matilda.

“This is just more conducive to our lives — it gives us extra time for family, and it lets our employees move wherever they want to. But we’re lucky to afford a house that gives us both enough space to work — otherwise, this might be a different conversation. And we do still have some in-person meet-ups to help with team culture.” 

— John Ryan, co-founder, Office/Bureau

A series of computer monitors sit on a desk in front of a big bookshelf. Letter sculptures spelling out Azure sit on top of the bookshelf. Part of a photo series about return to office in Toronto.

Our own workspace was designed by Dubbeldam Architecture + Design back in 2017 and is located in a formerly industrial building on Sterling Road.

Most AZURE employees work in the office from 9–5, with the option to work from home available when needed.

Return to Office: Is Toronto’s Business District Back?

Documentary photographer Jon Laytner tours the city’s downtown office towers as lapsed commuters begin to settle back in.

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