Before COVID-19, just 5% of Britain’s workforce was working mainly from home, according to an ONS survey (1), with 12% working from home at least one day during the week prior to the 2019 survey. It was most common in the traditional commuter regions of London and the South East, as well as among older and more senior workers, and those in the highest-paid occupations – a valuable perk limited to senior management.
Enforced working from home for many over the last year has now proved it is possible on a mass scale, and has lowered the barriers to its social acceptability, leading to widespread employer adoption. Many of London’s workers will not have missed their twice daily commute, that was expensive in terms of money, time and energy, but was also taking its toll on their physical and mental health. Some were spending an extra 140 hours per year travelling to and from work compared with their counterparts in other regions (2).
Five days in the office seems “old-fashioned now”
In the future, business surveys show employers envisage workers spending 60% of their time in the office, while employee surveys generally show a preference for working in the office 40% or even just 20% of the time (3). Whatever balance is struck, increased remote working will reduce the need for city centre offices and their ancillary services, offset, in part, by an increase in demand for working space in the suburbs, towns and rural areas. This will cause problems for commercial landlords, who face an oversupply of workspace in cities, and a shortage in other areas. However, conversions of offices for non-commercial use and the construction of more space in other areas will take years.
One major employer, Unilever, says workers will never return to their desks full-time. The business will adopt a “hybrid” model, claiming five days a week in the office seems “very old-fashioned now” (3). Last year, Unilever announced it would pilot a four-day working week during a year-long trial in New Zealand. The maker of Dove gave all staff the chance to work four days a week without sacrificing their pay to gauge learnings and reassess working practices for its 155,000 employees globally.
Will environmental concerns see a return to mass transport?
So, what of public transport? Prior to the pandemic, 60%+ of London’s workers used public transport (rail, underground and buses) to get to work compared with just 15% in secondary cities and less than 10% across the rest of the UK (1). As public transport is more energy-efficient than private cars, unsurprisingly London’s per capita energy consumption for transport is less than half of that in other regions of Britain. If the decline in daily peak commuter journeys persists post lockdown, reducing operators’ economies of scale, fares per journey will rise as will the public subsidy required.
The good news is there will still be demand for public or shared transport (employer shuttles), as all companies will need to further incentivise employees to move away from commuting by car to greener modes of travel to support achievement of their environmental targets. Car drivers will also be targeted by cash strapped councils seeking to raise revenue by imposing a congestion charge or surcharge on staff and business car parks, such as the Workplace Parking Levy (WPL) designed to promote traffic reduction, public health and air quality improvement in urban areas.
Whilst some employees have already fled to the countryside or the coast for a better work-life balance, happy to suffer a longer commute on the days they need to be in the office, most will still need to live close enough to their workplace to experience a reasonable commute two or three days each week, foregoing the advantage of relocating further away in search of cheaper accommodation and more space.
Using the latest route planning and vehicle tracking technology stress tested in the school sector, SaaS companies like Kura can now quickly and easily lay on dedicated single or multi-employer shuttles for urban office districts or business parks. This can have enormous environmental benefits, with one 49-seater coach replacing up to 31 cars on the road every day. Commuters using Kura shuttle services will soon be able to welcome the value add of an app allowing them to track the location of the vehicle on route and pay online if required, as well as desiring the safety in avoiding travel on busier public transport as we continue to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Electric Vehicles (EVs) not a short-term green solution
Transport accounts for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the few sectors where they have been rising, driven by increasing demand for the movement of goods and people (4). However, the impact of lockdown and reduced mobility during the pandemic saw emissions from road transport fall by 14% and total greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions drop by up to 8% in 2020. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement by 2050, as we still need a 7.6% reduction in total GHG emissions every year for the next decade.
As all COVID-19 recovery plans contain dedicated investment in EVs charging infrastructure and battery sourcing, EVs have an important role to play in any future integrated transport strategy. However, EVs are not a short-term fix as problems persist with limited driving range, high purchase entry price, battery issues and a patchy charging infrastructure. They will also not help alleviate traffic congestion and its impact on journey times in urban areas.
It’s time to step up and act
In summary, the pandemic and enforced working from home have shown the potential for a revolutionary shift in the location of work and accommodation, but the enormous inertia of the commercial real estate and legacy transport systems means this will take time. Meanwhile, just as transport improvements over the 19th & 20th centuries helped transform the size and shape of cities, technology and the impact of COVID-19 is remaking them again. A few things are certain – hybrid working is here to stay, and people want to travel safely when they need to be in the office, so the time has come for employers to step up and accept more responsibility for how their employees get to work – 1, 2 or 4 days a week. This now needs to be a Board issue, staff safety and wellbeing is paramount, and those companies who act now and help shape the “Future of Commuting to Work” will become employers of choice in 2022 and beyond.
Who is Kura?
Combining leading edge proprietary technology with the best local vehicle operators nationwide, Kura enables you to maximise safety, efficiency and well-being on shared transport journeys whilst driving down emissions.
1. ONS: Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK labour market: 2019
2. Transport Statistics Great Britain”, U.K. Department for Transport, 2020
3. Reuters: Will we still commute after the epidemic? John Kemp 05.01.21
4. Wealth Briefing: Is Electrification A Transport “Vaccine”? Kristina Church, 14.01.2021