Office three times a week is the ‘new normal’

Return to workspaces rebounds, but only to a point …
Load shedding is now making it difficult for some to work from home, while the sharp rise in fuel prices has made it more expensive to travel to work. Image: AdobeStock

Discovery Insure’s new Work From Home Index, developed because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, shows that people are only physically travelling to work three out of five days a week. Overall, the insurer’s clients are travelling to work less often, and this has peaked at about 80% of the normal level.

There has been steady growth in the percentage of clients travelling to work since restrictions eased after the initial hard lockdown.

The insurer has uncovered the following patterns from its telematics data:

  • A large percentage of Discovery Insure clients are not going into ‘work’ consistently on the same days each week. This points to a changed pattern of expectations whereby more workers are enjoying increased levels of flexibility in their workday;
  • The proportion of people going into ‘work’ three or more days in a week is 10% less than pre-Covid levels;
  • The proportion of people going into ‘work’ every day during the week is 20% less than pre-Covid levels; and
  • The most popular days for traveling to work appear to be Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The least favoured day is a Friday, with around 20% fewer trips recorded on that day.

While the data is not specifically ringfenced to white-collar/office workers, employees are unable to perform their roles remotely in most so-called blue-collar jobs.

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Discovery Insure CEO Anton Ossip says: “It is also interesting to see how external factors such as load shedding and fuel price increases will likely have an impact here, with load shedding making it difficult for some to work from home, while on the other hand fuel price increases [up 53% over the past 12 months] make it more expensive to travel to work.

“Regardless, there is definitely a strong sense of people returning to a ‘pre-Covid normal’.”

Large banks and insurers have rapidly adopted a hybrid work model, with some aggressively stating that only 40% of staff would be expected on campus (at head offices) on any given day. Anecdotally, the large legal, audit and professional services firms have swung toward remote work, with a minority of staff expected in daily.

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The return to offices as evidenced by Discovery’s data stands in stark contrast to trends overseas.

Kastle Systems, a provider of managed security systems in the US, in March reported office utilisation of “just over” 36.8% compared with pre-Covid levels.

Source: Kastle, via Bloomberg

Ossip says the starting data point for this Discovery index was a pre-Covid baseline set in February 2020 – the month before the first officially diagnosed case in South Africa and just prior to the subsequent Level 5 hard lockdown.

“Our interest isn’t at all random or purely for curiosity’s sake. As an insurer seeking to protect our clients from risk, it is important to understand how these risks are changing or emerging over time and how this impacts our clients,” he adds.

“To understand these patterns, we developed the Work From Home Index, which uses our market-leading telematics driving data to look at how our clients have shifted from ‘working predominantly from home’ to ‘returning to work’ locations.”

It used data from its client base to establish an (anonymised) individual’s home and their work environment.

Ossip explains that a ‘home’ location was determined as being the place where clients spent the night hours of most weekdays. This was also based on the end location of their last driving trip for each day. His team then defined a ‘work’ location as one that had a driving trip link to a specific location and back home again within a day.

“For example, a client would need to have left their home in the morning on a weekday to go to ‘work’ at some other location, where they would then have stayed for a number of hours, before returning home by the end of the day.” In other words, these were not trips to a mall or a coffee shop.

The trends reveal that “during the last couple months of this year, around 80% of people are now working at their ‘work’ locations again”.

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