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Streetcars and auto traffic head west along the Queen St. Viaduct in Toronto, on Jun. 13.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Maple Ridge, B.C., and Mississauga, Ont., are not only on different sides of the country, they’re on opposite ends of a complex spectrum of employers and employees navigating a return to the workplace as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

In Mississauga, as well as neighbouring Toronto, the aggregate number of days people spent at a regular workplace in July was still 40 per cent lower than in January, 2020, before the pandemic lockdowns began, according to research conducted by Environics Analytics. Meanwhile, workplace levels in Maple Ridge, in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, were actually 24 per cent higher than before the pandemic.

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A similar dichotomy emerges across Canada’s five largest cities, which the firm analyzed at the more microscopic level of forward sortation areas (FSAs), meaning the first three characters in postal codes. Drilling down to that level shows city centres falling behind outlying regions in returning to the office.

The return-to-work divide

While pandemic restrictions have lifted and fewer people are working remotely from home full time, the return to the workplace is far from even within cities, let alone across the country. Using anonymized, privacy-compliant data from mobile devices, as well as neighbourhood demographics and business data, Environics Analytics calculated the aggregate change in the number of days spent at workplaces in Canada’s five largest metropolitan areas between January, 2020, before the pandemic hit, and July, 2022. The maps show the change broken down by the first three characters of postal codes. Blue shades represent neighbourhoods where aggregate time spent at workplaces is below the pre-pandemic level, while red shades show those places that have matched or exceed it.

Change in the number days worked at a regular workplace, July, 2022 vs. Jan. 2020

By area based on the first three digits of a postal code

No data

-50

-20

0

+30%

Greater Vancouver Area

Calgary

Greater Toronto Area

Ottawa

Greater Montreal Area

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS

ANALYTICS WORKPLACENOW AND BUSINESSPROFILES

The return-to-work divide

While pandemic restrictions have lifted and fewer people are working remotely from home full time, the return to the workplace is far from even within cities, let alone across the country. Using anonymized, privacy-compliant data from mobile devices, as well as neighbourhood demographics and business data, Environics Analytics calculated the aggregate change in the number of days spent at workplaces in Canada’s five largest metropolitan areas between January, 2020, before the pandemic hit, and July, 2022. The maps show the change broken down by the first three characters of postal codes. Blue shades represent neighbourhoods where aggregate time spent at workplaces is below the pre-pandemic level, while red shades show those places that have matched or exceed it.

Change in the number days worked at a regular workplace, July, 2022 vs. Jan. 2020

By area based on the first three digits of a postal code

No data

-50

-20

0

+30%

Greater Vancouver Area

Calgary

Greater Toronto Area

Ottawa

Greater Montreal Area

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

WORKPLACENOW AND BUSINESSPROFILES

The return-to-work divide

While pandemic restrictions have lifted and fewer people are working remotely from home full time, the return to the workplace is far from even within cities, let alone across the country. Using anonymized, privacy-compliant data from mobile devices, as well as neighbourhood demographics and business data, Environics Analytics calculated the aggregate change in the number of days spent at workplaces in Canada’s five largest metropolitan areas between January, 2020, before the pandemic hit, and July, 2022. The maps show the change broken down by the first three characters of postal codes. Blue shades represent neighbourhoods where aggregate time spent at workplaces is below the pre-pandemic level, while red shades show those places that have matched or exceed it.

Greater Vancouver Area

Change in the number days worked at a regular workplace, July, 2022 vs. Jan. 2020

By area based on the first three digits of a postal code

No data

-50

-20

0

+30%

Greater Toronto Area

Calgary

Ottawa

Greater Montreal Area

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS WORKPLACENOW AND BUSINESSPROFILES

“Downtown cores tend to have the office and white-collar workers, and those sorts of workplaces have been most amenable to work from home, so we’re seeing a slower recovery there,” says Rupen Seoni, chief revenue officer at Environics. “When we get out to rural areas and resort communities, the decline is much less, and people there have largely returned to normal.”

Or exceeded it. Many rural municipalities and FSAs on the edges of cities have seen the level of workplace visits far exceed prepandemic levels. Some of that boils down to the seasonality of certain types of jobs, but also reflects the pandemic’s so-called urban exodus.

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“There has been a documented movement of people seeking out more rural locations and resort community locations during the pandemic, so there’s a higher level of demand there for services and people have returned to those jobs,” Mr. Seoni said.

Within the five cities, some FSAs have also seen workplace levels bounce back busier than before. Those urban areas where there’s been more than a 30-per-cent increase in days worked tend to have a disproportionate number of businesses in the wholesale trade, manufacturing, real estate and administration and waste management industries, which tend to require workers on site and have experienced a rise in demand during the pandemic.

Eight socio-economic groups in Canada and where they are in returning to work

Percentage reduction in commuting to work relative to pre-pandemic

Young urban professionals

-33.8%

Affluent older families

-30.8

Multicultural families

-27.6

Urban start ups*

-27.5

Middle-aged and older

suburban families

-19.1

Urban grey and blue collar

families & couples

-16.7

Small town middle-aged

and younger families

-11.9

Small town older families

and couples

-8.9

*Young, urban families and couples working primarily in white and grey collar occupations.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS OUT & ABOUT AND PRIZM

Eight socio-economic groups in Canada and where they are in returning to work

Percentage reduction in commuting to work relative to pre-pandemic

Young urban professionals

-33.8%

Affluent older families

-30.8

Multicultural families

-27.6

Urban start ups*

-27.5

Middle-aged and older

suburban families

-19.1

Urban grey and blue collar

families & couples

-16.7

Small town middle-aged

and younger families

-11.9

Small town older families

and couples

-8.9

*Young, urban families and couples working primarily in white and grey collar occupations.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS OUT & ABOUT AND PRIZM

Eight socio-economic groups in Canada and where they are in returning to work

Percentage reduction in commuting to work relative to pre-pandemic

Young urban professionals

-33.8%

Affluent older families

-30.8

Multicultural families

-27.6

Urban start ups*

-27.5

Middle-aged and older suburban families

-19.1

Urban grey and blue collar families & couples

-16.7

Small town middle-aged and younger families

-11.9

Small town older families and couples

-8.9

*Young, urban families and couples working primarily in white and grey collar occupations.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS OUT & ABOUT AND PRIZM

To find which types of workers are more frequently returning to workplaces, Environics also created eight broad socioeconomic groups and looked at which were more likely to leave their home postal codes to commute to a regular workplace, compared with before the pandemic. While commutes are down roughly 20 per cent, the decline heavily skews to well-educated, young singles and family-type households. While commuting is down 34 per cent for the “young urban professionals” category, it was on average just 9 per cent lower for “small-town older families and couples.”

The Environics analysis is only a general barometer of return to work trends, and each FSA and socioeconomic group includes a wide range of workplace arrangements, from fully remote to hybrid to a complete return. But the research shows that the extent of the return to the workplace has been slow and deeply uneven.

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