For many Canadians, the coronavirus pandemic profoundly changed their daily commute: people used to catching a subway or driving or biking to work now commute just mere steps from their bedroom to their home office, couch or kitchen table.
According to Statistics Canada, the pandemic prompted a five-fold increase in the number of Canadians teleworking — from four per cent pre-pandemic to 22 per cent in June 2020, while all forms of commuting decreased. Before March 2020, driving was the most common mode of transportation (75 per cent), followed by public transit (13 per cent) and walking or cycling (seven per cent).
A 2019 study from StatsCan found that of the nearly 16 million Canadians who commute to work, 1.5 million spend at least 60 minutes doing so. Longer commutes were more common in major metropolitan areas. Could benefits that make the trip smoother sailing be a way to entice white-collar employees back to the office post-pandemic?
Paula Martin, interim chief human resources officer at the Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, says despite the company offering a comprehensive suite of commuter benefits, she thinks the future of the workplace will involve more remote working.
“People, especially in larger centres like Toronto and Vancouver, have really valued reclaiming the time spent commuting for their families, for their own purposes, and I think we’ll definitely see more people wanting to work close to home and do away with the commute.”
For employees who do want to return to the office, the credit union offers plenty of incentives to help them get there, regardless of whether they take bikes, trains or automobiles.
To encourage employees to take public transit, the company offers discounted transit passes — and in Vancouver, many of its locations, including its head office, are close to a SkyTrain station or transit stop. It also has shower facilities, lockers and secure bike storage on site for employees who bike or even run to work.
Employees purchasing a new electric car can receive a $5,000 rebate from the credit union, matching the provincial government’s current rebate system, and those buying a new bike, making an e-bike conversion or even tuning up their bicycle can also receive a rebate of between $100 to $1,000.
The credit union also has electric vehicle charging stations on site and keeps electric bikes, two cruiser bikes and a car from Vancouver-based car cooperative Moto available at its head office for staff to sign out if they need to make a quick business-related trip. Employees can also be reimbursed for the cost of an “unexpected” cab or bus ride of the situation is urgent.
“It’s a bit of a plethora of programs, but what we really tried to do is look at the individual situations that people find themselves in and put incentives in place that can support them in using alternative modes of transportation and make sure we’re thinking holistically about this,” she says.
Over the years, Martin says, the company has seen the number of employees using alternative methods of transportation increase through its yearly transportation survey. In 2018, a survey of 83 per cent of employees found 55 per cent used a sustainable mode of transportation.
Michael Pecchia, account manager at Penmore Benefits, says commuter benefits are a “nice to have” in the total rewards offering that can demonstrate to employees that their employer cares about their overall well-being.
At a previous job for a mining company in British Columbia, Pecchia was able to use the company’s commuter benefits, which reimbursed “reasonable” transit costs based on Vancouver’s zone-based transit fares. Living roughly an hour outside of the city, Pecchia was able to split his total eligible costs between parking and taking public transit.
“For me it really felt like I was covered fully by my organization . . . with respect to my wellness, my transportation and my overall health,” he says.
Pecchia notes employers can offer some commuter benefits through a taxable wellness spending account, since the structure of the account allows for a lot of flexibility around what’s included. However, he questioned whether commuter benefits would incentivize employees to return to the office post-pandemic.
“If I was working from home and comfortable, I don’t know that it would necessarily entice me, but it could for someone who lives further away and has been missing that office experience, or needs to come in.”
Rather than looking at bringing all employees back to work, the credit union is reviewing its remote-work program and determining which role types could be eligible to continue working from home, should employees prefer it.
“[Our commuter benefits are] a fairly comprehensive set of supports and incentives, so we will continue to offer those,” she says. But “I think we will see . . . employees decide they’ve adjusted to work from home — it works for their families and they’re able to have the type of home office setup that meets our criteria — and we’ll see less people commuting.”