The future of Toronto’s downtown — will remote workers return to the core?

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In recent months, Toronto’s transit system has ramped up service, students have returned to in-person classes and daycares are up and running once again. 

Things almost seem like they did before COVID-19 changed the world. But despite the gradual return to normal, you might notice the city feels emptier.

A November report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Data Lab analyzed foot traffic trends in cities accross the country from January 2020 to September 2022. It found foot traffic in Toronto’s downtown core is 46 per cent lower than before the pandemic hit — a stark contrast to places like Brampton, Brantford and Barrie, where foot traffic actually increased.

Heading into the new year, experts say the data provides a glimpse into the continued trend of remote and hybrid work and its disruptive impact on downtown office space, related economic activity and patterns of movement outside the city.

One trend they expect to continue is employees pushing to continue working remotely.

“I don’t think this is something that people are going to give up easily,” said Tricia Williams, the director of research at The Future Skills Centre based in Toronto.

If interest rates and unemployment continue to rise, workers might be more willing to compromise. But even then, Williams says, with a widespread labour shortage spanning multiple industries, workers will “continue to be choosy about jobs that give them more flexibility.”

“People are voting with their feet,” said Williams. 

Board of trade ‘optimistic’ about recovery

According to the chamber of commerce report, Toronto’s not the only hub to see reduced traffic. Canada’s largest city did worse than Ottawa, but better than Kitchener and Vancouver. Burnaby, B.C., and Gatineau, Que., both experienced a heavier drop in foot traffic.

The decrease has been evident in metropolitan centres across the country, but Toronto is in a unique position to recover, says Jennifer van der Valk, the vice president of communications and public affairs of the Toronto Region Board of Trade. She says the city is still a place where people want to live and work due to its amenities and its status as a tourist destination and transportation hub.

“We really do expect the trends to continue in an upward trajectory. We’re feeling quite optimistic,” said van der Valk.

While employees who can work remotely or within a hybrid setting may explain the decline in foot traffic, van der Valk notes most workers in Toronto had to work in-person throughout the pandemic and continue to move throughout the city regularly.

And even though foot traffic is still down, she says tourists and business travellers are returning — something the local economy welcomes, since a loss in foot traffic can come with a hit to economic activity, the report says.

“It may actually be a new opportunity for innovation and different types of in-person work to come and surprise us,” said van der Valk.

Future of remote and hybrid work

But the Future Skills Centre, through its own research this year, found a majority of workers were in favour of remote work, wanting it to continue after the pandemic is over. The centre also says most employees want to work remotely full-time and aren’t interested in hybrid schedules.

While foot traffic in Toronto is lower than before the pandemic, the Toronto Region Board of Trade says people are out and about and contributing to the local economy, along with the gradual return of tourists and business travellers. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And if companies choose to go against previously established remote and hybrid work arrangements and call workers back to the office, it might not have the intended effect. It’s something the federal government might learn the hard way as it’s receiving pushback from its plan to have all public servants work two to three days in person this coming spring.

“I think there’s going to be increasing talent and skill shortages if employers are going to require that,” Williams said.

“Because people simply can’t afford to live in places where … the median price for a one bedroom apartment is nearly $2,000 a month,” she added. “Flexibility and remote work has been a key kind of survival tactic for workers navigating the housing affordability crisis.”

The commerce report says the increased foot traffic in cities outside downtown cores is consistent with another trend that popped up during the pandemic: people, particularly remote workers, leaving downtown in favour of less densely populated areas nearby.

Van der Valk says it’s likely the businesses and people who will take up the void these workers left will shape a new type of workforce.

“It might look a little bit different, but that opportunity to thrive as a city is absolutely there.” 



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