https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/03/13/friction-over-the-return-to-work-is-settling-on-a-hated-aspect-of-office-life-getting-there.html

When Michele Finney thinks about her life before the pandemic, she doesn’t know how she got everything done. The Oshawa mother has a lot on her plate. In addition to her administrative job at a Big Five bank, she has a three-year old son and two dogs that keep her busy.

For the past two years, juggling everything has been a little easier because she’s been working from home. She can use her lunch break to pick up groceries or put a load of laundry in the machine. Getting dinner ready on time isn’t a problem, and she has time after work to be with her son. “The quality of life is so much better,” she said.

That’s about to change. Starting March 21, her employer has told her she needs to start coming back to the office in Toronto’s financial district at least one day a week.

One day a week in the office is a deal many would have jumped at pre-pandemic. But some workers worry the soft return is only a prelude. And Finney’s circumstances, like many people’s, have changed. She and her husband moved from Scarborough to Oshawa during the pandemic to find more affordable housing. Her new, longer commute downtown will require her to drop her son off at daycare before driving to the Pickering GO station to catch a train. It will take more than an hour each way.

“I feel anxious,” she said. She worries about the price of gas and train fares, about catching COVID in crowds, about the discomfort of the office dress code and not being able to get home before her son goes to bed.

“It’s going to be a big change,” she said. “How did I do it before?”

Thousands of people across the GTA who have been working remotely since COVID-19 hit are set to start making the trip to work again this month. The return of the commute will come at a cost. To individual workers, it will be in the form of higher bills, less time with family, and concerns about their health. For employers, it could mean challenges in maintaining productivity, and, for the city as a whole, it means more traffic and pollution. No wonder so many people are dreading the return to work.

The strong emotions the debate provokes were on display earlier this month when real estate giant Oxford Properties had to remove signs it erected in the lobby of one of its office towers on Bay Street. The signs were supposed to be a lighthearted way to welcome workers back downtown, the company said. They carried messages like “Bet your dog’s missing you,” and “Miss your sweatpants yet?”

The backlash on social media was furious. “If my work did this to me I’m walking right back out and never coming back,” wrote one Twitter user. Oxford apologized.

Millions of Canadians haven’t had the privilege of working from home during COVID-19, and have continued doing essential jobs at hospitals, grocery stores, delivery companies and other sectors. But by the end of last year, almost four in 10 working Canadians reported working from home at least some of the time, according to Statistics Canada. The number was higher in urban centres like Toronto.

Figures from the Toronto Region Board of Trade suggest people who have been working remotely have grown attached to their new routines. In a February 2022 report on the post-pandemic workplace, called Navigating the New Normal, the board found four out of five workers who had switched to doing their jobs from home were happier. Nearly four in ten said they would start looking for another job if their employer required them to start commuting every weekday.

Craig Ruttan, the Board of Trade’s policy director for energy, environment and land use, said anxiety over the trip to and from work is a significant part of the reluctance to return. People have spent two years developing new habits around their morning schedules, child-care needs, and household tasks. The thought of suddenly having to account for commute times again “is a big mental barrier,” he said.

In Toronto, that time is considerable. Statistics Canada estimates that Torontonians who can skip the commute and work from home would save an average of 72 minutes per day. That time represents the longest commute in the country — hours in a week that could be spent on more fulfilling activities.

In addition, the financial cost of commuting has never been starker. The price of gas hit a record $1.90 per litre in the GTA on Thursday as a result of supply problems and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and experts predict there may be no relief at the pumps until next year.

Transit is less expensive but can still amount to $156 a month for a daily TTC commuter.

It can also take a toll in other ways. The TTC and GO Transit say safety measures they implemented during the pandemic, like enhanced cleaning, upgraded air filtration systems, and provision of hand sanitizer will help keep returning commuters safe. But despite this, and assurances from public health authorities, many commuters will feel they’re risking exposure to the virus by getting on crowded vehicles again — especially if mask mandates on public transit, which remain in place until at least April 27, end up lifting. The latest figures from the TTC indicate 95 per cent of riders are wearing masks, but the agency confirmed this week it will continue its controversial education-first approach to its mask rule instead of stepping up enforcement as more people come back to the system.

Local transit networks have become less welcoming places, with the TTC and GO reporting increases in assaults and other security incidents during COVID-19. Some transit commuters will also be waiting significantly longer for their trips. GO Transit cut bus and train service as demand dwindled and is currently operating about 50 per cent of normal. The agency said customers can expect announcements about service increases “in the coming weeks.”

Some of the costs are broader. More people commuting will generate environmental costs. According to a June 2021 report from the Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think tank, in the first year of the pandemic, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by seven per cent, with the reduction in pollution from surface transportation making up a significant portion of the decline.

“As more people commute, the environmental gains will be reversed,” Saeed Kaddoura, a senior analyst at Pembina said in an email. However, he noted the shift to working from home has presented environmental challenges of its own, including emissions from booming e-commerce deliveries and inefficient energy consumption in home offices.

The challenges of returning to the office might be offset if there were clear benefits, but many workers believe productivity could actually decline. An April 2021 Statistics Canada survey found that nine in ten respondents who worked from home said they got as much or more work done per hour than they did at their workplaces before the pandemic, indicating remote work could be more efficient.

Michael Halinski, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, said the results of self-reported surveys should be taken with a grain of salt. But he said there is evidence people who have been working remotely have been doing their jobs during the time they used to spend commuting.

Traditionally, employees have been considered off the clock while they’re going to and from work, but in the past two years “that commute time has turned into work time,” Halinski said. As more people start to make the trip to work again, “it’s almost like the employer is going to lose two hours a day.”

With so many potential drawbacks, why do companies want employees to start commuting again?

Employers surveyed by the Board of Trade said in-person interactions foster a kind of productivity that’s difficult to replicate over Zoom. Halinski said firms also believe having employees in the same space is essential to creating a positive corporate culture that can give them a competitive edge.

Many employees do report seeing at least some upside to coming into work on a limited basis, including reconnecting with colleagues. And some will view their commute more favourably than others. Sitting in gridlock on the QEW for an hour each day is stressful, whereas a 20-minute bike ride to work can be a boost to physical and mental health.

Certainly, reopening offices will revitalize the city’s core. Public transit agencies that have been starved of fare revenue for the past two years will welcome the return of commuters, as will businesses downtown and elsewhere that were hobbled by the sudden disappearance of their nine-to-five clientele.

Difficult as this moment feels for many, it may present opportunities. Much has been said about “the Great Resignation” sparked by COVID-19, in which a large number of workers appear to be re-evaluating their careers and quitting to seek better opportunities. But Souha Ezzedeen, associate professor at York University’s School of Human Resource Management, said it might be more helpful to view changing attitudes toward various aspects of work as part of a “Great Renegotiation” between employees and employers.

The shocks of the past two years have altered assumptions about what workers need in order to do their jobs, and to manage their domestic lives. They have revealed that commuting can serve a purpose, but is hardly a necessity. Ezzedeen said that means companies that want their employees to come back to the office will have to make it more attractive to them.

For most, that will mean a hybrid model in which workers stay home for at least part of the week. But it could also include companies setting up satellite offices to make commutes for suburban workers shorter, or even subsidizing employees’ travel time.

In 2020, New York-based Bloomberg offered its employees a transportation stipend of up to $75 a day that they could spend on taxis, Ubers, parking, or public transportation to get to work. The policy is set to expire at the end of June.

But Ezzedeen said benefits like that are something employers should consider keeping after the pandemic. “All this amount of commuting that we did pre-pandemic, for the most part (employees) assumed the cost thereof,” she said. “Now there’s a greater likelihood that we’re going to renegotiate the cost of that commute.”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr