Office workers' biggest concern? Commuting

Distributed office models could help relieve employee anxiety

July 10, 2020

As offices gradually reopen, companies are making sure sanitation and social distancing protocols tick all the right boxes for people to feel as safe as possible when back in the workplace.

But for workers, there’s a bigger concern before they even arrive: the commute.

The prospect of cramming into confined spaces on mass transit is testing their nerves. Which is why over a third of people who previously took public transportation to work will seek other forms of travel in the immediate weeks and months after the pandemic, according to JLL’s Workplace Experience Survey.

But the convenience of working from home for the last few months has also had an impact. Nearly half the global respondents surveyed said “less or no commute” had been the best part about working from home.

“As companies evaluate strategies for reopening their offices, a larger issue surfaces: how will employees safely commute to their workplace?” says Carol Hodgson, Director, Global Research, at JLL. “Avoiding the time, expense and the environmental impact of daily commutes has been a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic.”

More people opting to drive as an alternative could translate into more congestion as people elect to take their cars to work. But some workers simply must rely on public transportation.

As a result, some large employers are considering a more distributed office plan, with multiple options and flexibility in where the work gets done. This can include the option to work from home, the leasing of flexible space, and satellite offices, often in the suburbs, that people can more easily commute to, says Christian Beaudoin, Managing Director of Research and Strategy for JLL in the Central U.S.

“The initial results from our survey suggest that workers will be very cautious in every step of their re-entry journey,” he says. “By reducing time of travel, a more distributed system of ‘offices’ is one of the ways companies can make public transit and driving more palatable. It could also make alternatives such as biking more feasible.”

However, considering the fact that roughly a third of all office space in North America is concentrated in a dozen transit-oriented markets, we believe that most people will return to public transportation in the long-term, says Julia Georgules, Senior Director of Research for East U.S. and Canada.

New York, Toronto and Chicago rank as the top three metros in North America in terms of the number of total employees that use public transportation, according to JLL’s most recent research on commuting. The number in New York alone is 3 million. Hong Kong’s public transportation system, at pre-pandemic levels, carries 12.9 million people a day. In London, half the population relies on public transportation to get around.

Companies in these and other markets are charting where employees live to inform decisions about where to set up offices, or a cluster of them, including flexible space options, and recognizing that the conversation of urban versus suburban has become too definitive, Georgules says.

“COVID-19 has certainly popularized work-from-home, but a lot of companies are also having discussions about a ‘work-near-home’ solution,” she says.

In the short-term, companies may sign on with coworking or flexible space providers. Many focusing on suburban locations, for example, and can provide occupiers with flexibility until the future becomes clearer, Beaudoin says.

At that point, some downtown occupiers may reconsolidate in a centralized location. But many won’t. The possibility of future disease outbreaks and enhanced risks associated with public transportation are going to be part of the worker psyche for some time, he adds.

“The COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate the trend of a more distributed office strategy,” Beaudoin says. “Urbanization will remain a strong and compelling force, but its dynamics will change with important implications for office space requirements.”