Remote working is emptying Ottawa's downtown, but is it a permanent shift?
Experts say the longer the pandemic drags on, the more likely remote working is here to stay
For the legions of employees across Ottawa who have been working remotely since March, the home office is beginning to feel like the new normal.
While the federal government's official plan anticipates the tens of thousands of public servants currently working from home will eventually return to the office, other major employers in the city, like Shopify, have already announced remote working is a permanent arrangement.
Walk through Ottawa's downtown core these days, and the effects of the pandemic are plain to see: a few workers trickle out of LRT stations, but parking garages have plenty of space, sidewalks are uncrowded and "for lease" signs are a street-level reminder of the hit to downtown business.
It's pretty much a certainty that our downtown cores are going to change quite significantly- Tyler Chamberlin, Telfer School of Management, U of O
Tyler Chamberlin, an associate professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa who researches innovation and business, thinks the city could be on the cusp of a major shift.
"It's pretty much a certainty that our downtown cores are going to change quite significantly," he said. "I do feel that the longer the pandemic is with us, the more likely those changes are going to be permanent."
Chamberlin thinks the pandemic pressed fast-forward on a trend that was already underway. That, combined with the fact that thousands of Ottawans no longer have to wake up early to elbow onto crowded buses or sit in traffic on the Queensway, builds a strong case for remote working.
"It's always hard to deal with the future, and it's always uncertain, but when you're talking about things that are irritants on people already, it's going to be a lot easier for people to change in that [remote work] direction."
Hit to downtown business
Louis-Philippe Beland, an assistant professor of economics at Carleton University who has already begun to publish research on the severe effects of the pandemic on small businesses, says downtown employers such as sandwich shops and dry cleaners are already under immense pressure due to the pandemic.
Small businesses tend to operate within narrow margins, so any interruption in revenue can have a long-term effect, he said.
"With this new second wave, and the new restrictions, it's very worrisome for small businesses," Beland said.
Just how much the downtown changes will depend on how long the pandemic drags on, he said. If a vaccine is discovered and distributed relatively quickly, more workers may return to the office, but if the pandemic drags on for another year, these "temporary" routines could become permanent.
But not everyone will suffer. "This might create some winners and losers," Beland said.
Businesses that choose to flee the downtown for the suburbs or bedroom communities around Ottawa, for example, could see that risk pay off. While businesses that remain downtown continue to suffer, Beland expects those located closer to where their customers live — and now work — could see a surge in sales.
"Those people, if they keep their jobs, they'll still spend money, just not downtown," Beland said.
Chamberlin believes that may mean a major reorganization for a city like Ottawa. Bedroom communities and suburbs could see more growth, while downtown office towers could be transformed into affordable housing.
Cities have been through this before
Adam Weiss, a professor at Carleton University who researches transportation trends in urban areas, is less convinced Ottawa's downtown is on the verge of a major shift.
Growth and development in the suburbs is nothing new, he points out, and the city's planning strategy still prioritizes dense housing around transit hubs and in downtown areas to counter-balance demand for sprawl, which helps keep people in urban areas.
"Even with the pandemic, the goal is still likely, from a planning perspective, to intensify," he said.
Weiss remains optimistic about demand for housing and amenities in denser urban areas.
Housing near LRT stations is not just for convenient commutes to work, but also tends to be in more walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods, close to things like shops and restaurants that people want to frequent.
That's unlike the suburbs, which are largely for cars.
"Cities have lasted for a long time and they've survived pandemics before this one, and in all likelihood they're going to survive pandemics after this one too."