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Shift to working at home might spur big changes to public space and services: report

Shift to working at home might spur big changes to public space and services: report
Business
In February, about 12 per cent of Canadians were working from home. By April, the number had jumped to 40 per cent, with the public and non-profit sectors showing a greater take-up than private industry.

Ontario is the biggest provincial adopter of home-based work with 38 per cent of businesses reporting more than half of their employees are working remotely, according to a new study from the Urban Analytics Institute of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

Professor Murtaza Haider, the study’s lead author says that after decades of talk about home-based work, COVID-19 has brought the practice into the mainstream. For the first time employers recognize that workers can be as productive at home as they are in the office. It’s a transformative event in the same way the oil crisis of the 1970s became a catalyst for more efficient car design, he said.

Some workers will likely go back to the office when the pandemic subsides, but Haider expects as many as 30 per cent of employees will continue to work from home long-term.

“You see the Googles and Shopifys of the world making the transition. They’re the trendsetters and they’re financially incentivized to embrace this because if you work from home you need all these internet-based services so working from home increases their profitability,” said Haider.

Even Cambridge University, an 800-year-old institution that kept its traditions through two world wars, has announced its courses will be entirely online in the age of COVID-19, he said.

The implications of the shift, says Haider, is an opportunity for a wholesale reimagining of our cities.

“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in building infrastructure,” he said. “Regardless of how much we build, traffic congestion will not go away, nor will affordability challenges. So why don’t we take some of that sum in helping people adapt to some of these new possibilities?”

One possibility is to reduce the demand for those services by rethinking where and how we live and work, he said.

The report suggests that redundant office space could be converted to residential uses, reducing rents and prices in the downtown. Some workers could live in more affordable outlying areas where housing prices are commensurate with median incomes.

“People do not need to be slaves to their mortgage for the rest of their lives just because they want to be in commuting distance,” said Haider.

Home-based work could also cause a reconsideration of the size of homes, says the report titled “Telework during COVID-19 lockdown in Canada: The implications of working from home for traffic congestion, housing affordability and commercial real estate.”

“If workers need to dedicate part of their dwelling space for work, the size and design of condominiums in the future will have to adjust. Solariums, considered a luxury in downtown-located condominiums, and large balconies will likely become highly sought after, even must-have features in areas with a high incidence of telework,” says the report.

The researchers found that international studies of travel behaviours among home-based workers shows home-based work has the potential to cut congestion. Even when other members of a worker’s household continue to travel, they tend to choose off-peak times on less-congested routes.

When people return to taking public transit, it’s likely that vehicles, platforms and waiting-area capacity will accommodate fewer commuters with more distancing, says the report. Cities are already struggling with a COVID-induced financial crisis that has them considering service cutbacks.

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But there will be push-back if those public investments shift, warned Haider.

“There will be vested interests that will be seriously shaken … If we find a solution where we don’t have to build that much, all of those stakeholders will see a decline in their agency,” he said.
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