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Office rethink could retool Vancouver’s tech status

Office centricity out, ‘recruitment hub’ in for Shopify’s Vancouver expansion plan
Shopify announced plans at the start of the year to hire 1,000 people to work at a downtown office building. The Canadian technology company has changed its plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic | Submitted

Shopify Inc. (TSX:SHOP) kicked off 2020 with designs mirroring many other tech companies eager to set up shop in Vancouver – but with a key difference in scale.

The Ottawa e-commerce giant revealed plans in late January to hire 1,000 workers spread across a four-storey, 70,000-square-foot office at Four Bentall Centre on Dunsmuir Street.

Four months and one pandemic later, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke took to Twitter in late May to cast doubt on the future of such an office.

His company would be keeping its offices closed until 2021, “and after that, most will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over,” he tweeted.

The Vancouver office is now slated to serve as a “recruitment hub” for the company as the workforce goes remote.

“But now, our teams will also be hiring across B.C., Alberta, and beyond,” Shopify Vice-President of User Experience Lynsey Thornton, who had been appointed to lead the new office, said in a statement to Business in Vancouver.

So if office centricity is over for one of Canada’s biggest tech companies, what does that portend to Vancouver’s efforts to become a leading global technology hub?

“The old office is dead, and we’re not sure what the new office is going to look like yet,” said BC Tech Association CEO Jill Tipping.

As the tech sector transitions to remote working, Tipping has been conducting weekly community calls to gauge what’s going on in the industry.

From what she gathers, the sector will be turning the 9-to-5 office into more of a social or collaborative space.

“If we can decouple economic concentration in tech from proximity to investors, and if people can live where they want to live, that’s great news for places like … B.C.,” Tipping said. “I think we’ll see more global tech companies with interests in employees in Vancouver, and we’ll see more B.C. tech companies being totally open to people working in other parts of B.C.”

Prior to the pandemic, Burnaby’s Traction on Demand was already setting up for what CEO Greg Malpass described as “pods” of workers in locations like Nelson, B.C.

Malpass told BIV in 2018 that any business advantage lost through smaller economies of scale will be regained by keeping workers who no longer find Vancouver to be the right fit.

Meanwhile, Shopify’s course has not yet been adopted by other tech companies that announced plans to expand in Vancouver at the same time as Shopify did.

Mastercard Inc. (NYSE:MA) said there is no change of plans for its new $510 million cybersecurity centre in downtown Vancouver.

The centre, announced in January, is set to employ 300 additional workers on top of the 100 already stationed at Vancouver-founded cybersecurity firm NuData Security Inc., which Mastercard acquired in 2017.

U.S. financial technology firm Tipalti Inc. also revealed in January it was hiring 50 workers in Vancouver for its new office.

Chief marketing officer Rob Israch said in an email the company remains committed to its Vancouver presence and is “even hiring a few people as we speak.”

Silicon Valley’s Grammarly Inc., best known for its writing app, opened a 3,000-square-foot site on Water Street in Gastown last fall.

Plans to hire a dozen new workers to work alongside co-founder and head of revenue Max Lytvyn, who lives in the city, have not changed, according to the company. Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) announced plans in 2018 to expand significantly in downtown Vancouver with 3,000 workers.

An employee with knowledge of the matter said the company has not changed those plans.

U.S. fintech Brex Inc. did not respond to multiple inquiries from BIV about its plans for the city after revealing in March it was opening a 40-person office in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, Tipping sees the pandemic acting as an equalizer of sorts for the tech sector.

If meetings are all conducted online for the foreseeable future, that means there’s less of a need for B.C. entrepreneurs to rub elbows in person with deep-pocketed investors south of the border, she said.

It also means hiring will be less concentrated in a few select cities, “so there can be less competition between Vancouver and Toronto, for instance. And for startups to compete with a few more tools at their disposal,” Tipping said. •