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.
Figure 1- UK mobility by type of place
There are ebbs and flows during the year. After the 19 July “freedom day”, visits to the workplace declined relative to the baseline even as the government lifted the ‘work from home’ order. The reason for this was simply because the period coincided with the summer holidays. At the same moment, visits to retail and recreation increased (Figure 1). A better baseline would be the same day of the year in 2019, but beggars can’t be choosers. This data is still magnificent in its size, granularity, and timeliness. When comparing a business-as-usual period (like right now), it can give us a good indication of activity levels relative to pre-pandemic times. Ultimately helping us answer the question, are we back in the workplace yet?
The headline results are that the UK is slowly getting back out and about. Retail & recreation, and grocery & pharmacy are close to pre-pandemic levels, but transit stations and workplaces remain about 20% below baseline.
Who (or where) is back in the workplace?
The story in all of the charts is the same. Places that experienced the sharpest drop in activity on the initial March 2020 lockdown are the places that are furthest below benchmark today. I.e. Places, where jobs were most amenable to home working have continued home working at higher rates. Many places are closer to the baseline because they never strayed too far from it to start. Figure 2 below considers some of the larger UK population centres.
The data is available for many more areas of the UK, with the only limit being the number of lines that can fit on a chart before it becomes unmanageable.
Figure 2: Workplace visits, major UK population centres
Google cautions against making country comparisons, but it’s probably the best data we have. While different parts of the UK might have different levels, they tend to move in lockstep together. This is not the case when comparing a selection of countries where we see a much messier chart with overlapping lines - Figure 3. This shows how waves of the disease and measures to control it differed by country at different times. With this in mind, it may still be too early to tell how the UK stacks up relative to other countries. However, the chart below shows that the UK has consistently had low workplace visits relative to other countries throughout the pandemic. Analysis of the task content of jobs and the job mix within countries suggested that the UK had one of the highest proportions among countries of jobs amenable to home working. Although the level of workplace visits differs by country the chart suggests that the UK is not unusual in being below the pre-pandemic baseline at this point.
Figure 3: Workplace visits, a selection of countries
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.
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