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Commuters rethinking the return to office as gas prices hit record highs

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The high price of gas and gradual return to work after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has some commuters reconsidering how — and if — they will head into the office again.

Provinces across Canada have moved towards lifting COVID-19 restrictions in recent months, some doing away with mask and vaccination mandates entirely as case counts dip.

That has some employers ramping up plans to bring workers back to the office, including Scotiabank, which began welcome employees back on-site Monday as part of a phased return plan. The transition’s also started at Kinaxis, an Ottawa-based company that makes software to manage supply chains.

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Greg Quirk, a product marketing manager at the company, went to the office last week for a trial run.

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Quirk, who only joined Kinaxis in January and worked remotely for the past two years at his previous job, told Global News the transition to in-person was “a little bit like going back to Kindergarten” as he familiarized himself with a new routine, workplace and coworkers.

The office is a short drive from his Ottawa home, but he says that he kept an eye on his odometer while commuting the past week and timed out in his head what it would be like to cycle instead.

Among the factors pushing him to switch up his commute are the soaring prices at the pump — an average of $1.77 per litre nationally, as of Monday — and the chance to stretch his legs more often than he would at home.

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“It’s not only in terms of being able to save money, because gas prices are quite high and my car uses premium gas, but just from the activity aspect of it,” he says.

“It’s definitely something I’m going to look into when the weather gets nice.”

Bike shops from across Canada are saying Quirk is not the only person switching gears amid higher fuel costs.

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Read more: Pandemic, fuel prices contribute to New Brunswick’s booming bicycle business

Jon Carson, manager at Winnipeg’s Woodcock Cycle, says spring shopping at the bike store is off to an earlier start than usual this year.

“Our season usually doesn’t kick off quite this early,” he told Global News Winnipeg. “A lot of people are mentioning that gas prices are actually driving them to the store,” he said.

Halifax is also gearing up for a bicycle boom in the weeks to come as the high cost of fuel puts a drag on the pocketbook.

“As the gas price goes up and people start to think about it a little bit more, I think we’re going to see a big increase,” said Jenna Molenaar, owner of Halifax Cycles & Guitars.

In a statement to Global News, Metrolinx, a transit provider in Ontario, also cited record-high gas prices for an uptick in ridership during the first week of March.

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Hybrid transition important to workers

Back at Kinaxis, employees will have the chance to work in the office full-time, remain virtual or split their time between home and the office.

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After getting a taste of in-person working life again last week, Quirk says he’s likely to adopt a hybrid working style that lets him get facetime with coworkers a few days a week, while also giving him opportunities to stay focused while working from home, with the added benefit of being there to welcome his kids back from school.

Quirk says he feels comfortable working face-to-face again, and the benefits of in-person communication outweigh lingering concerns from the pandemic. Everyone who works in-person at Kinaxis needs to be vaccinated, he notes.

“I feel fairly good about being in the office and being around other people,” he says.

But not every worker is at the same place when it comes to their mental state or health status around the pandemic.

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Laura Williams, managing partner of Williams HR Law LLP, tells Global News that companies who are eager to get their staff back to the office are going to have to proactively manage expectations for employees who might be “fearful” of the lingering virus and show “resistance” to the return to in-person work.

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While public health measures might be dropping in many jurisdictions, employers should consider whether now is the best time to push the transition.

“Employees … may not feel that they have the level of wellness to come back and start commuting and going back to work,” Williams says.

“With the inflation considerations, gas prices, all of this kind of colliding when a lot of employers are now in earnest trying to return employees to site or to the office, it’s problematic.”

Read more: Employers revamp hiring plans to meet talent crunch, demand for hybrid work

The hybrid model adopted at Kinaxis is quickly becoming a sticking point for some employees, who might be feeling anxious about working in person again or feel more productive at home.

Talent recruiters who spoke to Global News last week said they’ve seen surging interest in hybrid working options — a demand employers are under pressure to meet as the low unemployment rate holds Canada’s tight labour market in the favour of job-seekers.

Williams says employers keen to keep staff, while transitioning back to the office, might be best to delay or phase in the return to work as COVID-19 case counts shift in response to easing restrictions.

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The burden of bundling up will ease as spring and summer approaches, she notes, and warmer weather could find employees enjoying their commute more than dreading it.

“Timing is going to be of the essence,” she says.

— with files from Global News’s Anne Gaviola and Irelyne Lavery

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