Cluster commuters: how returning to the office could change our cities and our lives

With many businesses expecting employees to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, Australia’s post-Covid cities could look very different

As restrictions on movement ease in Australia’s two biggest cities, the shape of the post-pandemic working week is rapidly coming up for debate between employers and employees. But the question troubling some urban commentators is not just how many days will be spent working from home, but which ones.

The Committee for Sydney – an urban thinktank that represents organisations including universities, hospitality, construction and entertainment – recently surveyed leaders of 130 organisations that employ 640,000 workers across Australia about expected staff attitudes and planned requirements in a vaccinated, post-Covid future.

The survey found that 51% of bosses expect their workers will commute to the office for just three days a week, and 36% expect their staff will cluster their office days from Tuesday to Thursday.

That has led the committee to urgently repeat calls for changes to public transport pricing to counterbalance the emerging “new long weekend” and spread travel more evenly across the week.

Cluster commuting

The predicted trend of working from home on Mondays and Fridays began to be seen across Sydney from late May, when Covid rules were at their most lenient after the northern beaches outbreak, but overall movement was still significantly down on pre-pandemic levels.

The data, compiled by research firm Roy Morgan and based on the movement of mobile devices in Sydney’s CBD, found that in the week beginning 24 May, Monday movement was down 66% compared with pre-pandemic levels of January and February 2020, down 63% on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 62% on Thursday.

The reduction was also just 62% on Friday, but a spokesperson for Roy Morgan said the figures did not differentiate between people moving through the city for work and for recreation, including those travelling to entertainment venues, restaurants and bars in the evenings, noting that was traditionally more common on Fridays after work.

Weather also appeared to affect commuting behaviour. The same Roy Morgan data showed more overall movement in the Sydney CBD in late April, when the weather was sunnier and warmer than the sample period in May.

However the pattern of workers appearing to cluster commuting between Tuesdays and Thursdays remained, with a similar proportional decrease in movement observed on Mondays between April and May.

The chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, Gabriel Metcalf, believes the NSW state government must now consider an expected change in commuting behaviour as it plans for Sydney’s future.

“At the moment I think there’s a lot of uncertainty among employers, but there are some signs pointing to the idea that a lot of people will go into the city on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf said “it won’t be ideal” if such a trend eventuates, because “CBD retailers and restaurants, as well as our public transport and road system, will see the peak of demand spread across only three days instead of five”.

“One idea worth exploring is having a different fare structure on public transport, so that it costs less to travel on days with lower demand, which could be a small nudge to smooth the burden of the transport network and traffic but would also have the benefit of evening out the demand for small businesses and restaurants.”

The committee’s calls to tweak public transport pricing and promote wider footpaths and more parks feature in its list of 12 suggestions to update NSW’s 2056 Future Transport Strategy. It also includes calls to expand the city’s metro lines, improve bike lane infrastructure, and upgrade to fast rail between Sydney and Newcastle and Wollongong.

Metcalf supports the NSW government’s renewed push toward alfresco dining and incentives for businesses to use outdoor spaces this summer, and thinks investing in post-work street events and allowing cultural institutions to open later would also help bring people into the CBD and spread out peak commuting demand.

“Anything we can do to make the CBD as wonderful a place as it can be is going to be helpful, so that means really doubling down on public space amenity, wider footpaths, slower traffic, and a really big investment in public plazas and parks as public spaces,” he said.

Fantastic flexibility

Throughout Sydney’s lockdown, Tim Nicholas has appreciated some of the freedoms that working from home has allowed him. At the same time, he is excited about the benefits of a face-to-face return from the beginning of November – albeit for three days a week.

As the co-founder of the tech startup behind the app GetReminded, Nicholas’ small team have used the pandemic to move out of their fully serviced office space in a business district in Sydney’s north, taking up an opportunity for more convenient premises.

A larger business was subletting desk space in their suburban office, anticipating a future where their workforce would be looking to work from home for a significant chunk of the week.

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Before the lockdown, Nicholas did not go into the office every day – a luxury of working in his own businesses he acknowledges has given his life “fantastic flexibility”.

Now, GetReminded will rent desks in their new office from Wednesday to Friday, and plan to continue that hybrid model into the post-Covid future.

“When we heard about what they were offering we jumped at it,” Nicholas said.

“The type of work we do, because it’s all on a computer, phone calls and emails, having the mix works for us because we do get the best out of our business. But the answer could be slightly different for each company, it comes down to the personality of employees.”

Aside from concerns about demand for city’s resources being concentrated over the middle of the week, a future of hybrid working could bring significant benefits for workers. Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, agrees.

“The pandemic has busted the myth that for many working from home is too difficult,” she told Guardian Australia.

McManus said bosses should support their staff choosing to work from home when they want to, and that such a model can have a “genuine upside for workers and businesses” because a better work life balance can made workers more productive.

However McManus cautions that employers who continue with any level of working from home will need safeguards to protect them from risks including overwork, long hours, stress, isolation and a sense of “never being able to disconnect from work”.

“For those who will continue to work from home, it’s essential that those arrangements meet the same health and safety standards that would be expected in the workplace, including Covid protections.”

She also stressed that employers work from home policies should apply equally to men and women so that “there is not an expectation that women work from home”.

Contributor

Elias Visontay

The GuardianTramp

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