Fears over COVID-19 may accelerate a long-term trend that could have major implications for both transportation and climate policy: working from home.
With the immediate concerns over coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised, “For employees who are able to telework, supervisors should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved.”
San Francisco-based Twitter is among the companies that have urged employees to work from home out of “an abundance of caution.” Microsoft’s employees in Washington state and San Francisco were urged to do the same.
In-person meetings and interactions with coworkers could obviously expose employees to virus transmission, but the commute to work itself is also a worrying factor for many. While driving alone poses little risk, the same cannot be said for bus and train travel. Mass transit commuters share confined spaces with many others and may touch contaminated surfaces, such as poles and ticket machines.
Over time, the coronavirus outbreak should subside, but some work and travel habits developed during this outbreak could be long-lived and beneficial. Just as many companies relaxed their dress codes to compete for workers with internet startups during the late 1990s DotCom boom and never reinstituted more formal requirements, liberal telecommuting policies implemented during the coronavirus epidemic could become permanent.
“We’ll never probably be the same,” Jennifer Christie, chief human resources officer at Twitter, told BuzzFeed News after the company asked its workers to stay at home. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the proportion of Americans working from home rose from 4.3 percent in 2010 to 5.3 percent in 2018. Long-term, working from home is likely to grow further, since, as Global Workplace Analytics reports, 50 percent of American workers now hold jobs that are at least partially compatible with telework and the majority of workers say they’d like to telework at least part of the time.
Ongoing improvements in computer and internet technologies continually make it easier for more people to effectively telecommute or operate home-based businesses. Employers also benefit from telecommuting because it allows them to save money by renting less office space and has been shown to increase employee productivity.
From a public policy perspective, increased telecommuting could raise questions about how and where to invest limited infrastructure funding in the future. For example, the theory that many politicians hold— if they build rail lines, riders will come — is costly and may not pan out. When Los Angeles County builds a new light rail line, for example, for every one rail rider the system gains, it loses five existing bus riders. That is not a cost-effective strategy.
Existing transit systems are struggling with high costs and ridership concerns across the country. According to the American Public Transportation Association, national mass transit ridership fell slightly from 10.2 billion riders in 2010 to 9.9 billion riders in 2018. Rail, by its design, can’t adjust to evolving migration and living patterns. Between 2010 and 2018, for instance, Washington, DC’s heavy-rail system’s ridership declined by 20 percent.
Policymakers also say they want to build and subsidize mass transit because it offers the hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But what if these subsidies are instead impeding the shift toward telecommuting?
A long-term increase in telecommuting could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while also reducing government spending on infrastructure.
Computer and technology company Dell studied its “Connected Workplace” and work-from-home policies and found “the Dell employee base saves over $12 million a year in fuel costs” and estimated its workers “have reduced their carbon emissions footprint by 35,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.”
The benefits of telecommuting are vast and go far beyond fighting coronavirus and the current public health concerns. Companies, along with local and state governments, should view telecommuting as a significant tool that could positively change their infrastructure, environmental and budget planning.