The pandemic could reshape how – and where – Vancouver works


Engineer Paul Robinson knows he’s lucky to be part of “the Zoom class” of workers.

Members of the Zoom class can work at home with little impact to their income because they can make use of video-conferencing technology. After adjusting to a work-at-home situation necessitated by quarantine, that group is expected to grow as workers and employers increasingly realize that remote work is not just possible, but could be a benefit to employee wellness and reduce the cost of doing business.

“This working remote situation only applies to the Zoom class, because there are so many jobs you can’t do remotely,” Mr. Robinson says. “I consider myself lucky to be in the Zoom class and to do it without it impacting too much on our business.”

Because of the crisis, more people are working remotely than ever before, particularly professionals such as engineers. Mr. Robinson, who lives in White Rock, B.C., with his wife in a rental apartment, is a manager at the Bellingham, Wash., branch of a global company that has 45 offices. Both he and his wife are working at home, and it helps that they moved into an apartment twice the size of their former downtown Vancouver home.

He says that half his workload is easily handled from his home office, but he misses the spontaneous ideas that might pop up in the office break room, or when dropping by a team member’s desk. That sort of interaction is lost in video conferencing. But he doesn’t miss the 35-minute commute, or the environmental cost of all the cars on the road.

“Feedback has been mixed. Some people are digging it. But for others, their home is their sanctuary and when they get off work at 5 p.m., they don’t want to mix business with pleasure. There’s this sense that there are no boundaries now. You might clock out at 5 p.m., but why not call someone at 6 p.m.? I have noticed an increase in that.”

But he does believe that the pandemic will ultimately lead to a change in where we work. Office managers have already realized that being in an office wearing a suit is not necessary for productivity, or meeting the bottom line. So in future, the way we use our homes, and where we choose to live, is likely to change.

On Feb. 1 of this year, 12.4 per cent of Metro Vancouver businesses had employees that were working at home at least 80 per cent of the time. By March 31, that rate jumped to 36.8 per cent, according to a crowd-sourced survey by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce cited by Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, who requested additional data focused specifically on Metro Vancouver.

Engineers and other professional technical service workers had already been working at home more than 80 per cent of the time prior to the pandemic at a rate of 24.6 per cent. Now, those firms are working remotely at a rate of 66.7 per cent.

Metro Vancouver businesses in cultural and information industries, such as journalists, had a work-at-home rate of 63.6 per cent prior to the pandemic. They’re now writing at the home keyboard 81.8 per cent of the time.

“Once the crisis passes, then how many of these firms will go back to the situation of Feb. 1?” Mr. Yan asks.

He sees a couple of scenarios. Businesses could focus on creating pandemic-era work spaces. And for what he calls “Zoomers,” there could be an emphasis on more spacious home environments, where at least one person in the household could comfortably work at home.

“Some say the central business district is going to shrink. But the thoughtful businesses might say they want their workers to interact, and they need to be secure in a central place. So you could see them expanding their footprint because they need that security.”

And for those who work remotely either full-time or part-time, the upside is they won’t need to commute to the urban core.

“For a long time people in Metro Vancouver didn’t move out to the burbs because of cheaper housing, but for bigger spaces. We might see a return to that.”

Alison Bernstein is a New York real estate agent and president of The Suburban Jungle Group, which specializes in finding millennial clients homes outside big cities. Ms. Bernstein was once featured in a New York Times article that called the outward migration of young families “hipsturbia.”

“There is a mass exodus right now from the city. We are seeing an increase of over 300 per cent from the same time period last year. It’s crazy,” Ms. Bernstein said in an e-mail. “The combination of COVID and remote work is pushing everyone out.”

New Yorkers are moving to the suburbs but also smaller regions, such as Austin, or South Florida. They’re choosing location based on livability, over work.

“The last few months have been confirming the trend we were already reporting on – home is where we not only live, but where we work, exercise, learn, shop. The pandemic has pushed all of this to the forefront.”

Michael Heeney, president and chief executive officer of Surrey City Development Corp., says an exodus away from Vancouver and toward Surrey is long overdue. The crisis should present the city with opportunities for expansion, including new office space and much-needed transit. After all, the population is already concentrated around Surrey. New Westminster is the geographic centre of the region’s population and it’s just across the Fraser River. Surrey is the second largest city in the region and Mr. Heeney is overseeing the growth of the downtown core at Surrey City Centre. He is frustrated by the focus on Vancouver.

“I think the future for Surrey is very bright, and if anything this pandemic will accelerate that,” Mr. Heeney says. “But having people sit in Vancouver and bellyache about the cost of housing and there’s no family housing, all this stuff—when they have never looked past the river, and probably not even east Vancouver – they just don’t get it.”

Another draw is that there are far more two- and three-bedroom condos and townhouses in Surrey than Vancouver. He believes the future will involve a combination of remote work at home and a nearby office where workers can check in. He anticipates a post-COVID future where Surrey will grow in office space, and businesses, particularly tech companies, will get over the lure of downtown Vancouver.

“That’s where Surrey starts to make a whole lot of sense. If people are only going to come in for a couple of hours for a meeting you don’t want them to commute for two hours. That’s lunacy. If you can put the offices closer to where people live, that’s a more practical way to do it. That is why Surrey City Centre makes a ton of sense. It’s that second node in the region.

“People working remotely and being tethered to a head office is not a new idea, but we are in the middle of this amazing beta test where we are finding all of these technologies, so when we get back to work we will be much more open minded about how we do things,” Mr. Heeney says.

And Surrey’s larger homes make sense in the event of another pandemic. In Vancouver, small units are justified because of shared spaces, such as rooftop amenities.

“The thing that is coming home in a big way is that we’ve been pushing people into smaller and smaller apartments and living spaces, particularly in Vancouver, because of the cost of housing. We’ve been rationalizing it as this lovely public realm of coffee shops, and places where people can hang out. All of a sudden it’s not working very well.”

Developer Adera is adjusting to the new demands of home buyers who see working at home as a new reality. The 50-year-old company, which specializes in wood and mass timber construction, has hundreds of units underway. It recently kicked into action to offer customized options for flexible office or nook spaces with WiFi.

“We have had our interior designer create and design three different kinds of office nooks and home office space that people can have added to their homes,” says Eric Andreasen, vice-president, marketing and sales. “The bottom line is that we are providing for an increased number of people that want to work from home – and that is something we have been responding to in the last four to five weeks as a direct result of COVID.”

He says the modifications are available to anyone who already has a home under construction or who has taken occupancy.

The company’s Crest by Adera condo project in North Vancouver is 90 per cent sold out, and the Duet condo project in Coquitlam is more than half sold. Sales for Duet Cityhomes, a townhouse complex also in West Coquitlam, is just getting underway, Mr. Andreasen said.

“We don’t know where it’s going to end, right?” he says. “Is this virus going to carry on forever? It’s reasonable to imagine there might be a second or third wave. What happens if they don’t find a vaccine for it? That’s been filtering up for last couple of days. Maybe it keeps evolving and we have to deal with for the rest of our time. Who knows?

“Our population is expanding and the reality is that people need to have places to expand to, places where they can live, where they can raise a family or they can move to, to continue their lives.”

Mr. Andreasen said the challenge now is to figure out how to make space more efficient, while dealing with costs.

“How can you make more use out of less space, because less space is more affordable? There is a lot of stuff that we have to come to terms with, so we are spending time thinking about it.”

Prior to the pandemic, Adera had created a patented floor system called QuietHome that greatly reduced sound between units, and the company is now emphasizing the system as part of its marketing.

“COVID just magnified or enhanced the situation so that you know things like quiet, things like sturdiness, having home offices, that kind of stuff, became part of what the new norm is going to be,” Mr. Andreasen said.

“I believe working from home is here to stay. It might not be five days a week, but three or four days a week. I don’t know. But I believe people will continue to work from home as a result of COVID. Businesses are going to find there is a benefit to it, as long as we can manage it better.”

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