New data unlocks picture of an uneven return to work

People are silhouetted while dining in a restaurant on English Bay in Vancouver in October 2020. The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — In March, the threat of COVID-19 emptied out Canada’s workplaces. Many employers shut down offices and employees created ad hoc home setups. Retailers closed their doors, either by choice or to follow local government regulations. Some factories and warehouses that remained open changed schedules to accommodate social distancing.

Seven months later, case loads are again on the rise in parts of Canada, but some workplaces have reopened their doors and welcomed back employees. Brivo, a Maryland company that offers cloud-based access and security systems for workplaces and other properties, provided data to The Logic that shows overall workplace attendance in Canada’s three biggest cities is still down from its pre-pandemic level. However, that figure varies significantly depending on industry and location.

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Talking Point

Canadian workplaces emptied out in March from the threat of COVID-19. Now, as cases once again rise, some workplaces started to welcome back employees. Brivo, a Maryland-based company that provides access and security systems, shared data with The Logic that shows the return to work in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto is about half of pre-pandemic levels. But the pace of recovery depends on industry and location.

At the start of the pandemic, daily active users and total unlocks across Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver at all types of workplaces plummeted, according to the Brivo data. 

Daily active users, or the number of unique credentials used each day to enter a space using a Brivo system, fell more than 61 per cent, from 88,122 during the week of February 24 to just 33,655 in the week of March 30. Total unlocks—the number of times a workspace was entered—dropped nearly 65 per cent over the same period.

But after an initial clearing-out of once-crowded downtown hubs, the economy started to reopen and people gradually returned to work.

Daily active users during the week of October 5 across the three cities climbed back up to 47,195. Still, that only made up about 54 per cent of the total pre-pandemic February week, when more than 88,100 individual codes were used to enter workplaces. Total unlocks saw a similar pattern, returning to about 50 per cent of their late February total by the week of October 5.

However, the trend toward pre-pandemic levels isn’t evenly distributed. 

Manufacturing and warehouse facilities, as well as retail locations, saw a greater increase than offices and locations labelled as “other.” In the week of October 5, manufacturing and warehouse locations saw nearly 68 per cent of the daily active users they had during the February week, while retail experienced nearly 66 per cent.

Daily active users at offices, meanwhile, were about 10 per cent lower. They totalled nearly 59 per cent of the February week base. Other workspaces saw the least growth, at just about 43 per cent of the daily active users seen that February week.

Unlocks for each category followed a similar pattern.

Part of that discrepancy comes from what types of jobs can be done from home, allowing those workplaces to keep staff at home as much as possible. Only about four out of 10 employed Canadians could work from home, according to a Statistics Canada analysis released earlier this year. Much of their ability to do so depends on the industry that employs them. More than 80 per cent of jobs in professional, scientific and technical services; educational services; and finance and insurance could do so. Meanwhile those involved in the accommodation and food services; or agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries “have almost no telework capacity.”

Retail workers, for example, likely stayed home if their stores decided to close temporarily in an effort to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Some provincial governments ordered all non-essential businesses to stop operating, forcing retailers’ hands. But with business survival at stake, many closures were short lived. Local governments started allowing various shops and services to reopen with safety measures in place, meaning staff would be required to return as needed.

Even where governments ordered much of the retail sector to pause operations, they deemed some businesses essential. Grocery workers, for one, continued coming into work for the most part to keep the food supply chain humming. People employed at many manufacturing and warehouse facilities faced the same reality, with some exceptions, such as where COVID-19 outbreaks forced closures.

Many office staff have been working remotely throughout the pandemic. Many companies announced extended timelines for an eventual return, or decided to downsize or eliminate their offices altogether. Shopify sent its thousands of staff home in mid-March and later announced it planned to abandon its former Ottawa headquarters and a Toronto location, as well as overhaul many of its other offices as it moves to a “digital by default” style.

The discrepancy between which industries offer the ability to telecommute is another example of how COVID-19’s impact hits unevenly among the workforce. Black tech professionals, for example, reported in high numbers that the coronavirus hurt some combination of their employment, work life and finances.

Not only did the type of workplace influence how quickly people returned to work, but also what city houses the building, as the local coronavirus caseloads determine how governments and businesses react.

Vancouver witnessed the quickest recovery of the three cities, according to the data. By the week of October 5, daily active users made up about 59 per cent of what they were the week of February 24. Retail saw the greatest recovery at roughly 83 per cent, with others (58 per cent) and manufacturing and warehouses (57 per cent) trailing not too far behind. Office users only experienced a roughly 41 per cent return.

Toronto came in a close second with total daily active users in that October week at about 57 per cent of the February total, and Montreal lagged at roughly 38 per cent. For both those cities, office recovery outpaced retail, which stood at roughly 58 per cent in Toronto and just 25 per cent in Montreal.

Part of Vancouver’s speedier return to normal may be because B.C. has seen significantly fewer coronavirus cases than Ontario and Quebec. Montreal is now in a designated Level 4 zone, with maximum provincial measures in place.