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What does mobile data reveal about the reality of the UK’s return to work?

Geoff Wappett, Head of O2 Motion, looks at how O2 Motion can tell us more about the UK’s ‘return to work’ and its implications for employees, employers and planners.

On the face of it, the contrast between Moray in Scotland and the City of London couldn’t be more obvious.

One is an industrial area, with employment focused on food and drink production, tourism, forestry, textiles and metalworking and where businesses employing more than 50 people are rare. The other is a global economic powerhouse and home to some of the largest financial institutions in the world. Yet the O2 Motion team showed me something else that’s very different about these two areas.

Analysing daily commute data from O2 Motion1 between March 3 (pre-lockdown) and August 25 (post-lockdown) revealed another significant difference. In Moray, 60% of the working population have returned to their normal pre-COVID-19 commute patterns – the highest percentage we see across the UK while in the City of London just 14% of employees have returned to their usual pattern of work.


And when I started looking at the data for the rest of the country, there were even more surprises.


Headline news

The return to work is a big, on-going story in Britain. Media outlets have been quick to report on findings from multiple studies. Research shows UK workers have returned to offices slower than our European counterparts. And there are warnings about the impact on businesses and city centres.


According to the O2 Motion data, by August 25 overall commuting had returned to around 40% of the level we’re used to seeing in the UK. But the contrasts in return to work stats do not end at the country level.


Most interesting were the huge disparities at a regional and even district level. I’ve already highlighted the huge variation in travel numbers between Moray and the City of London. Equally eye opening was the fact that some places have actually seen an increase in travel post-lockdown.


Districts like the Highlands in Scotland (+6%) and North Norfolk (+3%) have witnessed an increase in overall travel between February and August 2020. This could well be due to significant increases in tourist visits to those areas, coupled with a relatively low proportion of people working in occupations where working from home is an option.


What else can this tell us?

Comparing the data on two separate days only gives us an outline of what’s happened. There are other factors, like the school holidays, that could influence the gap in travel numbers between Moray and the City of London. So we’re going to review the figures in the middle of October – once the schools are back – to see if the numbers change.


Yet O2 Motion location intelligence exists for every single day of the year. It’s based on the actual movement of people between locations based on aggregated and anonymised movement data. And that gives businesses, retailers and infrastructure planners new ways to understand people and make better-informed decisions.


For the short-term, this data can be used to make decisions on safety procedures, transport requirements or even where to place advertising to attract the most eyeballs.


Over the longer-term, O2 Motion movement data can be used to make strategic decisions. For example:


  • Understanding how people move in different parts of the country could alter investments in road vs. rail vs. bus vs. cycling routes.
  • Layering air quality data on top of movement data could influence city centre congestion charge fees.
  • Data on passenger numbers could help rail or bus operators predict demand closer to real-time so they can put on the right level of service at lower costs.
  • Seeing an increase in car use could influence subsidies for electric vehicles (EV) or where to place EV infrastructure, such as charging points.


I know first-hand how this data has helped O2 formulate its own plans. Personally, I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home but go into the office if I need to. I prefer to use my own car at the moment and I’m glad that O2 has on-site parking. It isn’t the same for everyone.


What’s evident though, is that data like this can inform decisions at every level. And help us understand how the country is returning to a new kind of normal.


If you’re interested in how O2 Motion could help you make more informed decisions, you can read more here or get in touch with the team on 0800 955 5590.



1 What is O2 Motion and how did we analyse the data?

O2 Motion provides insights based on aggregated and anonymised population movement data from 25 million O2 mobile customers. For this working example (on the internal data we have available), we compared the number of people commuting from a home location to a regular place of work in the UK on two specific dates. The data includes all types of employees with a regular commute, not just office workers.



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