The boss of toll road giant Transurban has warned that employers will lose talented staff if they refuse to maintain some flexible working conditions after the pandemic passes.
Traffic on Transurban’s toll roads in Sydney and Brisbane have already bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, while Melbourne’s CityLink was this week down only 16 per cent despite private sector offices being limited to 50 per cent capacity and compulsory mask wearing in workplaces.
Chief executive Scott Charlton said on Thursday that traffic was set to exceed pre-pandemic levels within the next six months as more commuters opt to drive to work rather than take public transport because of coronavirus fears.
He said governments and businesses offering workers flexible hours and the ability to work from home would not only ease the peak hour crush, but would be necessary to attract staff who faced spending even more of their lives in gridlock.
“We’re saying that to retain top talent and get the best productivity going forward, we think that a level of flexibility is important,” Mr Charlton said.
“Businesses are thinking now about how they’re bringing their employee base back and how they might work remotely. That’s why we’re saying this is the time to consider these alternatives.”
Transurban estimates that average traffic speeds on its Citylink road in Melbourne would increase by 10km/h if just 6 per cent of the motorists travelling into the city each morning did so outside 6pm to 9am. Meanwhile, motorists on Sydney’s M2 could save 10 minutes if they delayed their commute to the city until after 9am.
A recent Transurban survey of 3000 people across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane found that 87 per cent expected to do most of their work in the office, but 70 per cent wanted to do so with flexible working hours. However, 41 per cent said either their employer was not intending to offer flexible hours or they did not know if it would be possible.
Transurban would benefit from having traffic more evenly spread throughout the day and faster average speeds as it means it could accommodate more cars onto its roads.
The company on Thursday revealed it fell to a $448 million loss for the six months to December 31, compared to an $80 million profit in the same half a year earlier, after COVID-19 travel restrictions led to an average daily traffic fall of 18 per cent across its roads in Australia and North America.
Traffic would have been down 24 per cent without the opening of Sydney’s new M8 and NorthConnex roads and the commencement of tolls on the M5 East.
Transurban’s result was below market expectations, sending the group’s ASX-listed shares 2.7 per cent lower in early trade before recovering most of its losses to close 0.7 percent lower at $13.27.
Mr Charlton said the company’s earnings and shareholder payouts would remain volatile for as long as the risk of more pandemic-related travel and workplace restrictions remained.
“When the restrictions get added back on that adds variability,” he said. “It’s still a robust business model, but, yes, there will be some sensitivity to restrictions.”
The company also revealed on Thursday that its $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel in Melbourne would not be completed in 2023 as scheduled due to an ongoing dispute over how to deal with contaminated soil from the construction site.
Mr Charlton would not commit to a completion date for the project, which was originally due to finish this year, or say on how much the delay would cost the company.
Moody’s Investors Service analyst John Manning said Transurban would face an “uneven economic and traffic recovery” across its core markets but should see a boost as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out.
The biggest risks were a resurgence in the virus and “the extent to which increased online activity and remote working will reduce the demand for travel”, he said.
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