After more than a year of working from home, many Canadians aren’t ready to give up on the benefits of avoiding the commute to work.

By Jared Lindzon, Special to the Globe and Mail* - Aug, 2021 

Canadians spent an average of 24 minutes travelling to work in 2016, but a new poll says only 12 per cent of those surveyed are willing to commute for longer than 15 minutes daily post-pandemic.
 
After more than a year of working from home, many Canadians aren’t ready to give up on the benefits of avoiding the commute to work.
 
According to a recent study conducted by Angus Reid on behalf of flexible workspace provider International Workplace Group (IWG), nearly a third of Canadians want a commute of no more than 15 minutes. Another 22 per cent want to work entirely from home, and nearly 40 per cent want a hybrid mode that blends in person and remote work. Over all, only 12 per cent of the more than 1,500 employed Canadian respondents are willing to travel more than 15 minutes to work on a daily basis.
 
According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spent an average of 24 minutes travelling to work in 2016, with more than 850,000 workers dedicating over an hour to travelling in each direction every day.
 
“People want to eliminate the commute for work that is not purpose-driven,” says Wayne Berger, chief executive officer of the Americas for IWG. “They want the ability to structure their days, or where they need to be each day, based on what’s required.”
 
The shift in attitude toward commuting represents a significant departure from a long-standing norm that dictated everything from how businesses operate to how cities are designed.
 
“This presents an opportunity for cities and provinces and municipalities to start rethinking urbanization,” Mr. Berger says. “It will help alleviate the stress on a taxed infrastructure and an overextended public transit system.”
 
Growing demand for a commute of 15-minutes or less validates a concept that has long been championed by city planners and developers. Many – including Toronto’s former chief city planner and founder of Markee Developments, Jennifer Keesmaat – have promoted the concept of neighbourhoods that provide its residents with all of their basic needs within walking or biking distance.
 
“The long commute was an unintended consequence of poor city design and auto-oriented sprawl,” she says. “What happened during COVID is many people were able to continue to work without having the long commute, and it raised the possibility in our imaginations and our minds that it was possible to live and work without a long commute.”
 
Ms. Keesmaat is one of 100 prominent Canadians who signed a Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities in 2020, urging Canadian governments to use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink urban design. One of the declaration’s 20 recommendations includes a commitment to the creation of 15-minute neighbourhoods “in which it is possible to live, work, shop, and age in place,” according to the declaration.
 
The benefits of reducing commuting times for Canadians are many, says Ms. Keesmaat, ranging from lowering greenhouse gas emissions to less spending on infrastructure, to providing individuals more free time and a better overall quality of life.
 
“It’s about transitioning to creating communities that are more complete, that have sufficient density, a mix of uses, and a mix of housing types that allow a variety of things to be done within 15 minutes of home,” she says. “As opposed to the traditional suburban model where you can’t do anything within 15 minutes of home.”
 
The demand for less commuting time also comes at a particularly opportune time for workers. In recent months employers have struggled to hire and retain talent, adding extra weight to employee demands. In fact, 29 per cent of respondents to the IWG study said they would look for another job if they are required to commute five days a week.
 
“The war for talent is very real, and has heated up,” says TJ Schmaltz, the chief people and legal officer of Prospera Credit Union and chair of the board of Chartered Professionals in Human Resources (CPHR) Canada. “A number of our employees in B.C. have said ‘If you ask me to come back to work full-time, or back to that normal schedule, I’ll look to go somewhere else,’ and I’ve heard that from our membership across Canada.”
 
Mr. Schmaltz warns, however, that there is often a mismatch between employee expectations and what employers are willing to offer in terms of flexibility.
 
“There are employees that say, ‘flexibility means I can work from home regularly, but also will come into the office and will have my designated desk or office available to me when I want it,’” he says. “In the future, employers are going to have to find the balance of, ‘we can give you flexibility, but that cuts both ways,’ and you might be looking at more shared space, or hotel space, when you’re in they office.”
 
Mr. Schmaltz says employees need to be realistic and understand that the level of flexibility they demand may not be compatible with the business’s needs. At the same time he warns employers to take such demands seriously, as flexibility and the ability to reduce commuting time is emerging as a key employee demand in a highly competitive hiring landscape.
 
Ensuring that leaders, and the enterprise as a whole, focus on and internalize these practices helps to build trust in the organization, and thus higher engagement: This is the way to win the war for talent post-pandemic.
 

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About the Author

*Jared Lindzon, Special to the Globe and Mail

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istock Photo, Getty Images

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