Analysis: changes to how we work and commute are likely to have significant impacts upon existing services and planned transport investments

By Agnieszka Stefaniec, William Brazil, Brian Caulfield, TCD and Warren Whitney, National Transport Authority

Large levels of working from home (WfH) were induced by social distancing and viral control measures undertaken to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Representing an unpredicted change in the way large amounts of people undertake their day to day work, it is expected that the legacy of this event will have wide-ranging and long-lasting results in terms of significant alterations to work and commuting patterns.

But how persistent the current trends will be remains an open question. Therefore, there is a need for a well-represented study of employees' preferences for the post-pandemic future and focus on white-collar workers and their well-established attitudes considering their flexibility in terms of workplace arrangements.

This research presents the results of a survey undertaken in Ireland in the summer of 2021 gauging the desire of office workers to WfH, the format that most appeals to them, the consideration of home relocation based on the ability to work from home and the factors that may explain such preferences. This research was conducted with a collaboration between the National Transport Authority (NTA) and Trinity College Dublin and has just been published in the Journal of Transport Geography.

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From the perspective of transport modellers and planners, the adoption of WfH measures is likely to have significant impacts upon existing services and planned transport investments. While there are likely to be a number of benefits on both a societal and individual basis, there are also likely to be negative impacts such as threats to the viability of transport services following a reduction in the number of commuting trips. Conversely, this reduction might be offset by an increase in non-work trips or longer commutes of employees who relocated to the suburban areas.

As this phenomenon is still evolving, transport planners are now required to update forecasts that may have previously been considered stable. As the impact of the pandemic on mobility is likely to represent a behavioural step change, rather than the natural extension of existing trends, there is an urgent requirement to collect data regarding the potential impact of long term large scale adoption of WfH.

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In order to address concerns regarding the impact of WfH on future year demand, the NTA commissioned a survey of desire to WfH in summer 2021. The survey sample was collected from a nationally representative survey panel, with a booster for the Greater Dublin Area commissioned by NTA and provided by Behaviour and Attitudes. The sample consisted of 1,282 respondents, however as this analysis is only focused on white-collar workers, this reduces to 896 respondents.

The main point of interest in the survey was revealing the propensity to WfH after pandemic. The survey asked respondents if they wished to WfH post-Covid, noting that this relates to the desire to WfH, not how possible it is. Given options of various degrees working from the office or home, 77.9% of respondents in the sample showed a preference for some form of WfH. Figure 1 outlines the desire to WfH and the percentage of respondents in the respective categories for both the Greater Dublin Area and the rest of Ireland.

These results demonstrate that the majority of respondents in both areas wish to engage in some form of WfH, either full time or a blended approach, with a mostly at home setup being the most attractive, particularly within the Greater Dublin Area. It is worth noting that only 10.6% of respondents within the Greater Dublin Area and 12.9% of those outside it, who have the ability to WfH, wish to work full time from the office. In this analysis Ireland is split between the Greater Dublin Area and the rest of the country.

Figure 1: white-collar employees' working from home preference by area, Greater Dublin Area (N= 586) vs non-Greater Dublin Area (N=310).

Figure 2 outlines the preference to WfH by day. These are based on the answers to the question asking on which of the days would the respondents like to WfH, and how often would they like to work on this day (always, sometimes, never, do not usually work this day), if they were given a free choice.

The results of this analysis clearly highlight a biphasic desire to WfH, with higher levels of preference being expressed to WfH on Mondays and Fridays, with respect to the middle of the standard working week. While this only represents desire and does not take into account how organisations may structure their staff, it does highlight potential issues for public transport services, with demand potentially being concentrated in the middle of the week.

Figure 2: white-collar employees' working from home preference by day.

This study also revealed the attitudes of respondents towards home relocation. The survey asked respondents if they would consider changing home location based upon the ability to work from home (yes/no question). Up to 42.5% of the white-collar respondents who have the ability to work from home state that they would consider moving. It must be noted that this does not represent 42.5% of the sample, rather those respondents within the white-collar category who had already indicated that it was possible for them to WfH.

This research was undertaken to examine the desire to WfH and the consideration of relocation based upon this ability in a post-Covid environment using a sample of office workers in Ireland. In terms of general trends, the results of this study highlight the presence of a large desire to continue WfH, especially in some form of hybrid model, within the sample of Irish office workers, with roughly three out of every four workers desiring some form of continued WfH arrangements.

Results show that there is not a majority consensus regarding the most attractive blend of from-home and on-site working

While mostly WfH appears to be the most popular option, results also demonstrated that there is not a majority consensus regarding the most attractive balance of from-home and on-site working. This suggests that organisations and employers may need to provide multiple options to their staff.

Overall, the results of this analysis show that there is a considerable desire for large parts of the working population to continue some form of WfH in a post-Covid world. However, only some of the factors that determine this can be considered to be forecastable at the level that transport modellers traditionally operate.

Moreover, the positive attitudes and intention to WfH only translate into action when work activities are feasible to be done remotely and when social and employer support is given. Hence, to achieve higher precision in forecasting the impacts on public transport, walking, cycling, and traffic volumes, further research could focus on employers' attitudes toward WfH practices and their support for long-term remote work arrangements.

This article is based on the paper Desire to work from home: Results of an Irish study which has been published by the Journal of Transport Geography.

Dr Agnieszka Stefaniec is Research Fellow at the Centre for Transport Research at TCD. Dr. William Brazil is Transport Modeller at the National Transport Authority and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Centre for Transport Research at TCD. Dr. Warren Whitney is Transport Modeller at the National Transport Authority. Dr. Brian Caulfield is Associate Professor & Head of Civil Engineering at the Centre for Transport Research at TCD.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ