In an effort to better understand commuter behaviour, Hames Sharley recently assessed its own employees’ commuter behaviours in response to the relocation of its new Perth studio. The research, conducted by Hames Sharley’s Emil E Jonescu, Stephen Moorcroft and Dean Symington, made a surprising conclusion – that a simple office relocation and change in mode of working has the potential to increase employee activity levels, ultimately improving health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Habits are strongly tied to the surrounding environment
Existing studies into consumer behaviours, particularly when it comes to commuting, show that it’s difficult to motivate people to change their habits. People get stuck in their ways, and commuting habits are created through repetitive behaviours, with little incentive to disrupt the behaviour.
But what happens when the physical environment is disrupted?
Some studies suggest that a shift in the environmental landscape provides the need to explore alternative routes. This marks a potential for new spatial relationships to occur, which may act as a ‘circuit-breaker’ to create new behaviours.
Prior to Hames Sharley’s move from their 20-year tenancy in Subiaco, they asked the question – would changing the location of its workplace act as a circuit breaker to change its employees’ commuter behaviour?
To answer the question, Hames Sharley explored Australian commuting preferences on a national and capital city level through census data, comparing it with the company’s Perth studio. This insight was to assess how behaviours associated with work-related travel might change when the firm relocated.
Hames Sharley conducted a two-part survey examining all (86) Perth-based employees’ commuting preferences before and after transitioning to its new studio. The questions related to commute mode, frequency, time, distance, cost, and convenience, and focused on travel habits to each specific office location. Responses to the questions provided quantitative data, which was used to identify relationships between variables, and relationships between participants.
The survey also embedded a daily step count pilot study, comprising of twelve qualifiying participants, to understand future research opportunities and discuss the outcomes with how communities develop and revise commuting habits. It was important to determine the viability of future research in this area. Participants’ step counts were recorded via wearable devices, such as Fitbits, Apple Watches, and Garmins, as well as mobile phones over a two month period.
It was anticipated that Hames Sharley’s move to Perth CBD would encourage the adoption of public transport, but the researchers wanted to develop an evidence-based understanding of why, to determine some of the contributing factors that influence behaviour changes, and the experiences before and after the move to the CBD.
Hames Sharley vs. Australia
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, driving remained the main mode of work-related commuting in Australia. Moreover, in Perth, the amount of time spent commuting has been increasing. In part, this results from the city’s excessive sprawl and congestion, which has negatively impacted the amount of time required to complete a round-trip commute to and from work.
Nationally, 73.8% of commuters rely on a motor vehicle. In Perth, 79.3% travelled by car, while the corresponding percentage for staff at Hames Sharley for the Subiaco commute was a mere 33%. Perth has the country’s lowest participation in walking and cycling, with only 3.8% choosing these options to commute, which has largely been suggested is due to dissatisfaction with Perth’s cycling infrastructure.
The findings suggested a significantly higher public transport use amongst Hames Sharley employees when compared with both the national and Perth average in both stages of the study. Public transport use also increased after the CBD move, and on average the cost of commute reduced from $26-50 to between $11-25 when respondents moved to the new CBD studios.
How the CBD location increased activity levels and improved satisfaction
The most interesting finding in the study, was that amongst the participants monitoring step count data there was a notable step count increase of 31% following the CBD relocation. Participant feedback suggested that the activity increase was due to taking additional external meetings, walking to and from public transport, the new office layout, as well as an increased interest in walking about the city during lunch breaks.
Across all survey participants, car dependence decreased after relocating to the CBD, and the overall level of satisfaction with commuting options was higher. This suggests that multi-modal public transport journey options provided an affordable, efficient, and quality alternative for employees.
A move to the CBD was not, however, a magic bullet solution. Although it did provide a ‘circuit breaker’ for some employees as hypothesised, almost a quarter (23%) of respondents lived less than 5km from the new offices, but still did not cycle or walk to work. This suggests that cost minimisation and increased physical activity (in addition to the potential for improved health outcomes) did not persuade participants to shift to more active modes of commuting.
The findings of this research have several implications for industry practice in terms of the understanding of commuter habits associated with a disruption event. For organisations looking to improve employee wellbeing, forcing a change of habit through an office relocation is one way to kickstart improvements, particularly when moving to a busy CBD location that increases public transport uptake. However, an office move alone is unlikely to boost overall employee activity, and further provisions, such as end of trip facilities, should be implemented to encourage more active modes of transport. Overall however, employee health and wellbeing can absolutely be considered as a possible value-add outcome when considering an office relocation. The pilot study data highlighted a strong potential for upscaled future research that aligns health and performance of workers in agile hybrid workplace settings, and the building services that support it.
Download the full paper below.