The future of downtown Toronto: will remote workers return to the core? | CBC News

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In recent months, Toronto’s transit system has improved service, students have returned to face-to-face classes, and daycare centers are up and running again.

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

A November report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce Business Data Lab analyzed foot traffic trends in cities across the country from January 2020 to September 2022. It found that foot traffic in downtown Toronto it’s 46% lower than it was before the pandemic hit: a stark contrast to places like Brampton, Brantford and Barrie, where foot traffic increased.

Looking into the new year, experts say the data provides insight into the continuing trend of remote and hybrid work and its disruptive impact on downtown office space, related economic activity and out-of-town movement patterns.

One trend they hope will 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, director of research at the Toronto-based The Future Skills Center.

If interest rates and unemployment continue to rise, workers might be more willing to commit. But even then, Williams says, with widespread labor shortages spanning multiple industries, workers “will still be picky about jobs that give them the most flexibility.”

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

The board of trade is ‘optimistic’ about the recovery

According to the chamber of commerce report, Toronto is not the only hub that has seen a reduction in traffic. Canada’s largest city fared worse than Ottawa, but better than Kitchener and Vancouver. Burnaby, BC, and Gatineau, Que., both experienced a larger drop in foot traffic.

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

“We really expect the trends to continue on an upward trajectory. We are feeling quite bullish,” van der Valk said.

While employees being able to work remotely or in a hybrid environment may explain the decline in foot traffic, van der Valk notes that most workers in Toronto have had to work in person during the pandemic and continue to move around the city with regularity.

And while foot traffic is still low, he says tourists and business travelers are returning, something the local economy welcomes, as a loss in foot traffic can hurt economic activity, the report says.

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

Future of remote and hybrid work

But the Future Skills Centre, through its own research this year, found that the majority of workers were in favor of remote work and wanted it to continue after the pandemic ended. The center also says that most employees want to work remotely full-time and aren’t interested in hybrid schedules.

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

And if companies choose to go against previously established remote and hybrid work agreements and call workers into the office, it may not have the desired effect. It’s something the federal government could learn the hard way, as it’s getting pushback on its plan to have all public servants work two to three days in person next spring.

“I think there’s going to be a growing shortage of talent and skills if employers are going to demand that,” Williams said.

“Because people just can’t afford to live in places where … the median price of a one-bedroom apartment is almost $2,000 a month,” he added. “Flexibility and remote work have been a key type of survival tactic for workers going through the housing affordability crisis.”

The commerce report says that the increase in foot traffic in cities outside the city center is consistent with another trend that has emerged during the pandemic: people, particularly remote workers, are leaving the city center in favor of areas nearby less densely populated.

Van der Valk says that the companies and individuals that fill the void left by these workers are likely to shape a new type of workforce.

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

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