Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy
Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy

What is the future of commuting to work?

Around half the UK labour force is currently working from home. Surveys of employees conducted in March and April 2021 suggest that spending two to three days a week at home is the most common expected working pattern after the pandemic.

There is a great deal of speculation about the permanence of recent changes to our lives brought about by Covid-19. Will we adopt our new patterns of consumption, using the internet for shopping and entertainment, and our new patterns of work, which to a large degree involve working from home?

One commentary on the Economics Observatory, written early in the pandemic, notes that Covid-19 has accelerated many changes in our ways of working, shopping and social interaction, and explores three scenarios for exit from the pandemic (Nathan and Overman, 2020). Like those authors, we recognise that the lasting effects on cities are yet to be determined since cities are highly adaptable, but drawing on new evidence, we find indications that employees like the new arrangements of remote working.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey, mainly working from home was a rising trend before the pandemic, but it amounted to less than 5% of working adults over the age of 16 prior to 2019. Understanding Society reported that in January and February 2020, 11.8% of workers often or always worked at home, and a further 17.7% sometimes worked at home. This implies that more than 70% of the entire UK labour force was commuting most working days prior to the pandemic.

ONS data from its Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain survey indicate that it was common for more than 40% of the population to have worked from home during the pandemic, but Decision Maker Panel data show this varies by industry (Haskel, 2021). Having tasted the benefits of working from home, spending two to three days a week at home is the most common expected working pattern post-Covid-19. In a new UK survey of working adults in the UK, we find that many would prefer a drastic change in the pre-pandemic pattern of five days a week commuting.

Having reduced commuting substantially during lockdowns, working adults in the UK are keen to commute just two to three days a week, and only one in seven expect to return to five days a week commuting. This will contribute a substantial reduction in costs and time travelling to work. Our results show that workers spent on average 29 minutes commuting and spent £5.50 per day on travel and parking costs. Over 60% commuted by private vehicle and 34% by public transport.

It is easier for workers in some sectors to work at home than for others due to the relative ease or difficulty of remote working (Haskel, 2021). While the evidence we present below indicates that employees are keen to adopt more working from home, employers asked between September 2020 and February 2021 were less keen to adopt it as a permanent model.

The resolution of these two competing views is still to be fully determined. But any change in the commuting patterns will have substantial impacts on the transport industry, the workplace and the future of cities – even if hybrid work patterns are adopted.

Employees’ reactions to working from home

Our survey focuses on four age brackets – 20-29, 30-39, 40-49 and 50-64 – during March and April 2021. All participants had earnings more than £10,000 per year, which enables us to screen out part-time workers. The survey results are summarised in a series of figures below.

Figure 1 shows that in March and April 2021, 47% of respondents are working from home, 40% are working in the office and 13% are not working. The numbers were slightly different than in January and February (when 52% were working from home), which is likely to be due to the lockdown and may reflect our sampling of workers from occupations with a higher share of tasks that can be done from home (Bartik et al, 2020; Dingel and Neiman, 2020; Taylor and Griffith, 2020). Nevertheless, as we shall see, working from home has reduced commuting to work substantially.

Figure 1: How often do you work from home?

Notes: Data are from two surveys of 5,000 UK residents carried out by Prolific in March and April 2021 on behalf of the University of Nottingham and Stanford University. We reweighted the sample of respondents to match the Labour Force Survey figures by age, gender and education.

We next asked the respondents: ‘After COVID, in 2022 and later, how often would you like to have paid workdays at home?’ Figure 2 shows the percentage who would prefer to have paid workdays while working remotely after the pandemic: 20% and 23% would like all working days or no working days at home respectively, but around 40% would prefer two or three days per week.

The eventual resolution of employees’ and employers’ perspectives on this issue will determine the long-run solution, which may vary by sector. Recent surveys of employers by the Decision Maker Panel show 88% of full-time workers were working from home rarely or never in 2019, but this figure had fallen to 53% in the first quarter of 2021 and was expected to by 64% in 2022 and beyond (post-pandemic) according to senior executives. The majority view is that the workforce will be working from home two or three days a week in the ‘new normal’.

Figure 2: In 2022, how often would you like to have paid workdays at home?

Notes: See Figure 1.

Adults in the UK report substantially improved perceptions about working from home and that working from home turned out to be better than expected. This rise in working from home looks like it will generate a long-run benefit to employees in terms of a valuable perk.

As Figure 3 shows, a large proportion of respondents felt positive about working from home after the pandemic, with the average employee reporting that working from home for two days a week post-pandemic was a perk equivalent to about 6% of earnings. As such, this shift in working patterns may be one of the few upsides of the pandemic. But it will also increase inequality since higher earning employees are more likely to be able to work from home post-pandemic.

Figure 3: After COVID, how would you feel about WFH two or three days a week?

Notes: See Figure 1.

How might this affect commuting to work?

In March and April 2021, after the number of UK adults working from home had fallen from levels seen in January and February, and the proportions working at home and working in the office were equalising, we asked about commuting patterns before and after Covid-19. Pre-pandemic, commuting to work five days a week was the norm for 61% of UK working adults, as Figure 4 shows. The average commuter was travelling four days a week and just 10% were not commuting at all.

Figure 4: How many days were you commuting to work before Covid-19?

Notes: See Figure 1.

This was time-consuming, incurred expense and was time spent relatively unproductively. As Figures 5, 6 and 7 show, workers spent on average 29 minutes commuting; they spent £5.50 per day on average on travel and parking costs (but this reflects a long tail of more expensive commutes: the modal cost was £3-5) and over 60% commuted by private vehicle and 34% by public transport.

One study finds that billions of hours of commuting time have been ‘saved’ in the United States, giving more hours for working, leisure, home improvements and family time (Barrero et al, 2020).

Figure 5: How long did it take you to commute to work before Covid-19?

Notes: See Figure 1.

Figure 6: What was the daily commuting cost to and from work before Covid-19?

Notes: See Figure 1.

Figure 7: What mode(s) of transport did you use for commuting before Covid-19?

Notes: See Figure 1.

When we asked about their preferences after Covid-19, workers showed a preference for commuting less than before the pandemic. Working adults in the UK are keener to avoid commuting or to commute just two to three days a week than to return to travelling for five days a week. Only one in seven want to return to five days a week commuting.

Figure 8: How often would you like to commute to work after Covid-19?

Notes: See Figure 1.

What would be the effect if we all did less commuting?

Changing attitudes about working from home may drive other changes, such as commuting patterns, urban design and the nature of our cities.

If travel were to change according to the preferences of workers shown in the results of this survey, it would be a major change for the transport sector. Fewer cars, buses and trams would occupy our roads, resulting in much lower levels of congestion and fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates. Fewer trains would be required and the London Underground would be less crowded.

The demand for office space would also change: there might be an exodus from cities (Nathan and Overman, 2020) and a reappraisal of the need for office space in city centres. Workers would come into work less often; space would not be at a premium to the same extent as it was previously; and hybrid working would be more common, with some workers in the office and others at home.

Not every industry would be affected to the same degree, and different norms negotiated by employers and employees are likely to emerge based on considerations such as relative costs and productivity.

Nevertheless, if some adjustment takes place, then the lower volumes of workers in cities will affect other industries. With fewer office workers during working hours in urban areas, supporting industries that ‘live off’ urban commuting workers will see lower demand. Hospitality, retail and food sectors already devastated by Covid-19 may face another challenge if footfall in urban centres falls.

There is already evidence in staff surveys by major firms such as PwC, Lloyds, Barclays, BT, Aon and Virgin Media that the preferences of their UK staff for a hybrid model rather than a full return to the office is leading them to cut back on office space. Firms are letting their spare offices according to a survey of 405 executives by RSM the accountancy firm (Financial Times, 4 March). Office construction has fallen from 4.32 million square feet to 3.61 million square feet year on year, and vacancies have risen, although this may be temporary.

Potentially, workers would have more balanced lives, depending on how they chose to use their ‘saved’ commuting time.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Paul Mizen, Nicholas Bloom and Shivani Taneja
Photo by Leon Warnking from Pexels

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