Downtown Toronto office workers consider returning to their offices

Toronto office workers inform recovery plans

Traditional downtown allure and new fears colour return expectations
Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Survey results indicate downtown Toronto office workers primarily rely on public health advisories to guide their pandemic-related workplace choices and commuting decisions. Respondents overwhelmingly ranked public health authorities as their preferred source of information on when and how to return to their offices, but employers, the City of Toronto and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) also emerged as influencers among 12 identified resources.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade commissioned the Nanos survey as part of its ongoing research into COVID-19’s impact on various business districts and sectors. The Board’s data and research arm has released a series of reports tracking and analyzing economic performance throughout the past 16 months and particularly focusing on three zones — the financial district, the Pearson employment area and Scarborough centre — to draw lessons about functioning through a crisis.

“Understanding how we survived — and in some cases thrived — during the pandemic is key to understanding how we will recover,” says Jan De Silva, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Board of Trade. “What we are about to experience is not a single recovery. It is going to be a series of recoveries. And each requires a different plan to lift up businesses, its workers, and acknowledge the very different challenges that each has faced.”

Based on survey findings, downtown commercial landlords are beginning that process with a tenant base that generally looks favourably on the area and their experiences within it. Just 76 or 15 per cent of the 506 workers who were surveyed during the week of Jan. 29 to Feb. 5 stated that the prospect of returning downtown made them uncomfortable. A greater share, 64 per cent, reported that they were comfortable with the idea, while 19 per cent were neutral on the question.

At the time, when the Greater Toronto Area was in the throes of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 24 per cent of respondents were working downtime fulltime and another 15 per cent were splitting work hours between remote and downtown locations. Only about 45 of the survey participants (9 per cent) were temporarily laid off due to the pandemic, while 268 (53 per cent) were working fulltime from remote locations.

Retail workers made up the smallest quotient of survey respondents, at just 5 per cent, while the unspecified “other” category actually accounted for as many downtown workers as retail and hospitality combined. Hospitality workers, representing about 7 per cent of respondents, recorded the highest level of comfort with downtown environs — at an average of 8.4 out of 10.  A much larger group of office workers, accounting for more than three quarters of respondents, scored their comfort level at an average of 6.8 out of 10.

Millennials and Gen-Xers aged 35 to 54 were somewhat more comfortable with the downtown milieu — reporting an average comfort level of 7.4 — than their younger or older confreres. Results also differentiated along gender lines, with women delivering an average score of 6.6 and men pegging their comfort level at 7.2.

Clear messaging on public health safeguards and risks required

Across the entire survey base, respondents were more likely to cite traffic (13.1 per cent) than COVID-19 (11.8 per cent) as a negative aspect of working downtown. That’s even though only 17 per cent travel to work via automobile. The vast majority, 57 per cent, commutes on public transit, but 24 per cent walk or cycle.

However, within the cohort voicing discomfort with the downtown, COVID-19 was the overwhelming major factor. More than 56 per cent expressed concern about exposure, with a lower tally of complaints about crowds (14.6 per cent) and commuting issues (12.2 per cent).

“Downtown Toronto workers who feel comfortable working downtown most often say they enjoy the area and like big cities, or they live downtown and find it convenient. Those who do not feel comfortable most often say it’s because they are concerned about COVID-19 and catching the virus,” Nanos analysts observe.

More than 80 per cent of respondents tied their current or eventual return downtown to having confidence that health risks are low and under control in their workplaces and points along the way. Notably, nearly 60 per cent of surveyed office workers typically travel on public transit — an even larger percentage than in the overall survey base. In addition, they want employers to convey information and assurances about newly implemented public health measures, as well as clarity about rules and consequences for breaking them.

“Downtown Toronto workers most often say they want to know that it is safe and what safety measures are put in place when they return to work downtown, followed by what protocols to follow and the COVID-19 case counts,” Nanos analysts reiterate.

Public health authorities are resoundingly regarded as apt purveyors of guidance on returning to downtown workplaces. Nearly 75 per cent of respondent ranked public health officials as one of their top two sources of information, and more than 88 per cent placed them in their top three.

Interestingly, although just 1.2 per cent of respondents viewed BOMA as their top source of information on the topic, nearly 93 per cent ranked it second to fourth among the options. In contrast, 2.6 per cent of respondents included the federal/provincial governments in their lists of the four most preferred sources of information and 1.3 per cent named the media.

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