CIPD Voice: Issue 31
Have you ever looked up a restaurant on Google and seen a little bar chart showing popular times? Well, Google has repurposed this data to help policymakers understand population movements in the context of Covid-19. It takes aggregated, anonymised sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting. You can download the data and read more about it here, but I’ve summarised the latest trends in this article.
The data is not couched in absolute terms (such as the number of journeys taken to work) but is relative to a pre-pandemic baseline of the same day of the week from 3 Jan – 6 Feb 2020. The baseline equals zero. Therefore, a figure of -20 means that 20% less activity was happening than during the baseline period. This methodology produces a few weird results. For example, visits to the park are extremely above baseline but that’s probably because few people visit the park in a wet and windy January – Figure 1.
Are we nearly there yet?
The UK appears to be plateauing at about 20% fewer visits to the workplace than the pre-pandemic baseline. The average over the entire period since the beginning of the pandemic was 35% below. The -35% figure represents not just home working, but a big drop in economic activity. At one point, 9 million people were on furlough. Workplace visits were clearly going to be much lower. We must remember too that most people continued to attend their workplace. ONS research suggests that during the pandemic home working never exceeded 40%.
The Google data is up to date and encompasses the end of furlough. The -20% is about where we might expect it to be right now. I do not think it is where the figure will finally settle. Life feels like it’s getting back to normal, but the pandemic isn’t over. Cases are running at over 30,000 a day and we are heading into winter. Cautious employers and employees may be playing it by ear. Although, furlough is over the economy is not yet back to its pre-pandemic level of activity which again will be limiting workplace visits.
It’s not clear that increased workplace attendance is desirable. However, it is a desire of key Government members, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor. To date, policy hasn’t strayed very far from mild threats which have been watered down to suggestions, most of which can usefully be ignored, particularly by the private sector. Longer-term, any attempt to get people back in the office will probably require more carrot than stick. The office will have to compete with the home with its value proposition. Working from home has benefits including cost and time savings. Policies to increase workplace attendance might focus on transport and housing. Subsidised transport that makes hybrid viable, and planning policy that delivers high-density housing on major transport nodes could reduce commute time, a major source of dissatisfaction.
Jon Boys: Labour Market Economist
Jon joined the CIPD in January 2019 as an Economist. He is an experienced labour market analyst with expertise in pay and conditions, education and skills, and productivity.
Jon primarily uses quantitative techniques to uncover insights in labour market data, both publicly available and generated through in house surveying. Jon regularly contributes commentary and analysis of economic issues on the world of work to online, print and TV media. Recent work includes the creation of an international ranking of work quality, analysis of firm level gender pay gap reporting data, and an ongoing programme of work looking at the changing age profile of the UK workforce.
Prior to this he worked for Be the Business – a government backed start up aimed at increasing firm level productivity in the UK, the Careers & Enterprise Company – another government backed start up aimed at transforming careers provision in school. He has also held prominent research roles at an Employers Association and Trade Union researching pay, conditions, and workforce composition.