As employees return to the office, sixth Covid wave looms

12 April 2022 2 min. read

As the country faces yet another wave of Covid-19, Avison Young offers insight into the level of office returns and Peninsula Canada gives advice on keeping employees safe in the workplace.

Ontario is currently seeing an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 new daily cases of Covid-19, according to Dr Peter Jüni, head of the province’s science advisory table. The sixth wave, which is being driven by the Omicron BA.2 variant, is expected to continue into the middle or end of May, according to Dr Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.

Jüni and other public health leaders have recommended that Ontarians wear masks indoors despite the provincial mandate being eliminated last month, noting it’s the quickest way to bring down case numbers.

The province is hoping that a large previous number of infections and high vaccination levels will keep hospitalizations and ICU numbers to a manageable level – and will prevent the need to reinstitute Covid-19 restrictions and safety measures the government dropped in March, including indoor masking.

Average weekday visitor volume

Amid the newest wave, many workers have been returning to downtown office blocks across the country, though downtown foot traffic remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Downtown foot traffic in the week of April 4 reached its highest peak since the week of March 9, 2020, according to the Avison Young Office Vitality Index. The commercial real estate services firm’s index utilizes anonymized cell phone location data to estimate total foot traffic across a variety of major cities and industries in North America.

Despite the recent return-to-office surge, foot traffic in Montreal remains 57% lower than pre-pandemic, 70% lower in Toronto, and 71% lower in Ottawa. The highest downtown foot traffic compared to pre-pandemic levels was in Edmonton (-23%) and Calgary (-46%).

“We need downtowns. We need offices without a doubt, that does not go away,” said Sheila Botting, Avison Young’s president of professional services for the Americas. “But the scale and purpose of these offices does change. It's going to scale up or scale down for any organization based on business purpose, culture, how people work and, ultimately, the role of the office.”

With resurgent Covid case numbers, HR consulting firm Peninsula Canada offered several tips to help keep employees safe at work. The firm’s head of consulting, Hope Kirk, recommends that companies encourage mask-wearing in the office; encourage employees to get booster shots; communicate to employees they should stay home if they have Covid symptoms; and encourage frequent hand washing.

One unmentioned option is a (temporary) shift to remote office work from a hybrid or on-site model. But, like the Ontario government, many pandemic-exhausted employers would prefer to declare Covid-19 a functionally resolved issue and go back to the way things were.