It’s all about where you work

Commute times, physical office space can be tipping point for jobseekers
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/28/2014

Attracting top talent is always a priority, and every employer has its own strategy. But it’s easy to underestimate just how much an organization’s physical location and office space can influence recruitment.

Many employees are no longer willing to trade a long, gruelling commute for their dream job, according to a survey of 2,009 office workers by Oxford Properties and Environics Research Group.

Accessibility and a reasonable commute time were identified as the most valuable attributes of a workplace, found the survey, which clocked the acceptable commute time for most respondents as 30 minutes or less.

“Top talent in many industries means that 25- to 40-year-old knowledge worker, that next generation of leadership, and we wanted to tap into what those people want. And one of the things that we learned is they want short commutes,” said Andrew McAllan, senior vice-president and managing director, real estate, at Oxford Properties in Toronto.

“Commuting is so important to them that, all things being equal, they will in fact go work somewhere else.”

Of course, what’s acceptable will largely depend on regional differences, said Hilary Predy, associate vice-president of global mobility at Roevin Technical People, a division of Adecco Canada in Edmonton.

“There are different acceptance levels across the country in terms of what’s considered acceptable or not acceptable amounts of commuting,” she said.

“So what is acceptable perhaps in Ontario or in the (Greater Toronto Area) would certainly never be acceptable in, say, Calgary or Edmonton.”

Commute times must be an important consideration in employers’ real estate decisions, said McAllan, and we’re seeing the effects of this as ever more high-rise buildings crop up across the downtown skylines of Canada’s major metropolises.

“If we don’t build the right thing in the right place, companies won’t lease it because they know they’re going to pay a price with their employees,” he said.

“It’s quite an interesting evolution for employers because they now have to ask themselves far more questions when they’re making space decisions.”

Amenities are also something to consider when making space decisions, found the survey.

“(Amenities) are certainly a very good selling point for people to be able to run their errands during their lunch hours or get to places quickly at the end of work, but there’s only so many companies that can work in an area like that,” said Predy.

“Daycare is often a big issue… if you had that closer by, that’s always a good selling point. But no one wants to travel an hour-and-a-half home with their child in the car either, so I think it’s a combination of location and amenities in that case.”

Compensating for a less-than-perfect location

But before you rush out and sign the lease on a new office building, it’s important to take a critical look at how commute times are actually affecting recruitment, said Alan Saks, professor of human resources management at the University of Toronto Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources.

“The first issue an organization has to consider is, is it a problem to begin with — is it even an issue? Because it may not be. If it is an issue, then that’s something that you probably would want to consider to some extent in your recruitment approach.”

It can be difficult to tell how much of an impact commute times have on the recruitment process, since it’s impossible to isolate them from other factors.

“The reality is all else usually isn’t held constant,” said Saks. “So if an applicant is pursuing a number of jobs and they have more than one job offer, they’re going to look at the whole pool of things… and say, ‘Well, I get more money here even though the commute’s a little longer, and I have more opportunities for advancement and training and development and it’s more what I want, then I’ll take that job even without the great commute time.’”

That’s encouraging for employers that are stuck in a less-than-desirable location and can instead focus their recruitment strategy on other assets employees are looking for, said Saks.

“From a recruitment perspective, if the organization knows commute time might be an issue, then what you want to do is play up the other attributes of the job — especially if you know that those are important to your applicant pool,” he said.

“The point is for the organization to focus on all the things they have to offer.”

And even if commute time remains an issue, focus on ways to mitigate the negative effects.

“If you know that (commute time) is a problem, do something to lessen the extent to which it’s onerous to applicants,” said Saks. “So, for example, if you offer some type of work-at-home opportunity, telecommuting or perhaps flexible work hours… there are all these things from a recruitment perspective that you can do to lessen any negativity that might be associated with a longer commute time.”

Collaborative space reflects desirable culture

The physical space, layout and setup of an office can also send a strong, immediate message about an organization’s culture, according to McAllan.

“The progressive employers are looking at their premises and saying, ‘What’s the message I want to send to my current and future workforce?’” he said.

“If you have offices that are all private offices without any glass and everybody works with their door closed and there’s no breakout areas, no collaborative areas, well that tells you something about the organization.”

This indicates a generational shift, said McAllan, as many of the younger survey respondents wanted collaborative workspace.

“We certainly see that the younger generation was looking for more ability to have collaborative workspaces, working with a team towards the same goal,” he said.

“There’s a recognition that one’s work area affects culture. And 10, 15 years ago, we didn’t even talk about culture. Now, there’s a realization of the importance of culture in workplace satisfaction, productivity, all of those things — and space contributes to culture.”

Another generational issue is creating a space that’s environmentally sustainable, said McAllan.

“Employers are more and more realizing they need to be in properties that are run to high sustainable standards because their employees want it. They practise sustainability at home and they want to practise it at the workplace.”

Predy agreed.

“Definitely with younger job seekers, they’re very keyed into how their job is going to affect the environment.”

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