Home is where the future is

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation - suburbs-The-Canadian-Business-Quarterly
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A few years ago, when we adopted our Future of Work strategy, no one could have predicted just how beneficial it would turn out to be.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has long been known for providing affordable housing and mortgage loan insurance, but perhaps less so as a bastion of change and innovation. In 2014, we challenged ourselves to do things differently. We came up with a strategy to make us more modern and more efficient: we called it the Future of Work. Over the course of the next few years, we overhauled our outdated technology and transformed our workspace. We equipped our employees to work remotely. We adopted a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE TM), enabling employees to work where and when it makes the most sense, provided they achieve the desired results. By 2019, all 1900 employees had the tools and training, trust and empowerment needed to work more efficiently be it from any of the CMHC offices across Canada or remotely from their homes or elsewhere.

“Work is no longer a place where we go, it is something that we do,” said Stéphane Poulin, CMHC’s Director of Human Resources Operations. “People were hesitant at first, but now we see that morale is up, employees are more engaged, and the stress associated with finding a work-life balance has decreased significantly.” 

Fast forward to 2020, when COVID-19 hit, reminding us of the importance of the home as a sanctuary – a place of safety, stability and refuge – during uncertain times. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis that is having tangible impacts on the health and safety of Canadians, as well as impacts on all sectors of the economy, including housing. 

CMHC is fortunate that the pandemic did not disrupt our ability to do our work. That work has many different facets: CMHC’s raison d’être is to make housing affordable for everyone. In addition to mortgage loan insurance for buyers, we provide important research, data and insights on housing in Canada. We provide programs and services to create and improve rental housing, funding and partnership opportunities to develop and enhance First Nations housing, and resources to assist newcomers to Canada with housing. We are responsible for delivering Canada’s National Housing Strategy, a 10-year $55 million plan to give more Canadians a place to call home. In fact, we aspire to the lofty goal that by 2030, everyone in Canada has a home that they can afford and that meets their needs. 

While our Future of Work strategy was conceived to render CMHC more modern and efficient, and not specifically for weathering an emergency such as a pandemic, it did just that. Implementing Future of Work was a strategic choice to prepare for external forces and disruptions we may face in the future requiring us to work differently. We could not have predicted what that would be, but we knew we wanted to be more flexible and better equipped to respond. 

All employees were already fully equipped to work from their homes when the crisis dictated that we had too.

“We were able to skip the step that many organizations and businesses had to take of determining who is mission critical, then scrambling to get those employees the equipment and bandwidth needed to work remotely,” Poulin said. By the time COVID-19 hit, the only outstanding piece of our Future of Work plan left to complete was construction work to consolidate and renovate some of our physical office spaces. “This put us in a better position to help Canadians through the pandemic.”

Other businesses and organizations have noticed. CMHC has had inquiries about our Future of Work strategy from many other Canadian government and private sector organizations, and from American, French and Australian companies.

As Canada’s national housing agency, and a key stabilizing factor of our economy, CMHC has an important role to play in helping Canadians through the COVID-19 crisis and in economic recovery. We quickly introduced measures to help Canadians remain in their homes. We have made available several programs to support homeowners, multi-unit borrowers and housing providers experiencing financial difficulty because of loss of income and other hardships. 

CMHC is providing mortgage lenders with the tools and the flexibility to help struggling homeowners and protect them from foreclosures. These tools include payment deferral (postponement) for up to six months (after which it will need to be repaid) and loan re-amortization. While rental housing falls under provincial jurisdiction, CMHC has worked with partners to provide options to give landlords the financial flexibility they need to show compassion to their tenants.

We are providing liquidity through the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program (IMPP), with up to $150 billion in funding. As well as putting forward measures to assist Canadians, CMHC is helping deliver crucial Government of Canada programs such as the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) for small businesses.

COVID-19 has exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in our financial markets. CMHC has taken measures to protect the economic future of Canadians and to avoid potential amplified losses resulting from falling house prices. In our Housing Market Outlook report released last June, we forecasted a decline in average house prices of nine to 18 per cent over the following 12 months. The combination of a future decline in house prices and increased unemployment is a cause for concern for Canada’s longer-term financial stability. We also implemented changes to our underwriting policies for mortgage insurance. These actions will protect homebuyers, reduce government and taxpayer risk and support the stability of housing markets while curtailing excessive demand and unsustainable house price growth.

Admittedly, some of the work we do – particularly on the finance side of things – may sound “dry” to some people. When I think back to that time in 2014 when we decided not to be complacent, to be innovative rather than continue doing things a certain way just because that’s how they’d been done for decades, I am proud of how far we have come. 

“It’s not just technology companies that can change how people work,” Poulin said, adding that our strategy has brought many advantages, such as benefits for the environment. “We have eliminated 5.3 million kilometres of driving per year – that’s about the equivalent of 1,300 metric tonnes of C02 emissions per year.” 

CMHC’s Future of Work strategy came to fruition after our President and Chief Executive Officer Evan Siddall and senior executives created a “safe space” – that is, a premise that all employees can propose new ideas.

“I thought it was just words at first – words that we all like to hear, but how are they going to be transformed into action?” Poulin recalled. “Then I started challenging my team: bring me four or five new ideas and we’ll talk about them.” 

It is interesting to note that while the Future of Work initiative started at the top –with executives being open to new thinking – at the same time it was very much a grass roots movement, because the ideas that built the strategy came from employees.

CMHC held a Dragon’s Den style forum for employees to present ideas. The winning proposal came from some CMHC employees who had read a book entitled Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. The book, written by Americans Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, promotes a Results-Only Work Environment™ as a means of making employees happier, and getting better results. 

Our Future of Work strategy emerged from that premise, but there was more to it. We took on a three-pronged approach: modernizing our technology, transforming our space to an activity-based workplace and adopting ROWE™.

“We found that we had significantly underinvested in our technology and we had a technology deficit,” explained Amélie Lecompte, CMHC’s Deputy Chief Information Officer. CMHC was using various systems for different functions such as managing interactions with clients, finance, human resources, etc., but these could not “talk” to each other. We replaced old technology and equipment and out-sourced IT services. “We are taking advantage of state-of-the-art technology — working smarter so that we can focus our efforts on activities that will benefit our clients.”

Organizations must adapt to change, or risk becoming obsolete. The world of work is changing, says Lecompte. Having worked for CMHC for more than 30 years, Lecompte has seen her share of change. “Back then we had typewriters, fax machines, a paper directory — it used to be that you had to be pretty important to have a computer at your desk or an email address,” she said, adding that when technology evolves, the thinking around it also changes.  “Change can be frightening – especially when an organization has been so successful that its entire culture becomes entrenched in its ways.

CMHC employees no longer have an assigned desk, or even a telephone. Most of our communication is through technology such as Skype and Teams, allowing you to make calls from your laptop. For CMHC, tying employees to a physical space no longer makes sense. That may not have been evident to everyone, but it certainly became clear when COVID-19 hit. 

“I think what we’ve achieved is resiliency,” Lecompte said.

We will also achieve a cost savings of approximately $200 million over 10 years by reducing our physical space by 75 percent, she added. CMHC closed several regional offices, and in Ottawa, we are consolidating our space from four buildings to one. 

“Becoming more innovative is also helping us attract more talent. ROWE TM is the number one reason new employees are coming to CMHC,” Poulin said. The Future of Work strategy has improved not only employee well-being but also instilled greater use of technology and increased collaboration.

When the time comes to give employees the option of returning to our offices, our activity-based set-up will make it easier to adopt safety measures. Open floor plans to tolerate physical distancing requirements are in place, as well as hygiene stations adjacent to workstations, and touchless entry, for example.

We know that our Future of Work strategy has served us well in more ways than we could have anticipated. We went from being centralized, bureaucratic, risk-averse in 2014 to agile, accountable, confident and innovative in 2020. For us at CMHC, the pandemic has only strengthened our resolve to ensure housing affordability for all Canadians. We know that housing helps people stay employed, do better in school and participate more fully in society. Housing affordability and a stable housing finance system support a stronger, safer Canada where everyone can live with dignity. Moving forward, we believe housing will be at the centre of Canada’s efforts to rebuild our economy, and our hope is that others will share our 2030 aspiration.  

Marie-Claude Tremblay is the Senior Vice-President, People and Strategy of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca.

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