COVID-19 is forcing a global workplace experiment in telecommuting that could have lasting benefits for employers, employees and the environment.
The social distancing measures introduced by governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 are forcing billions of people to change how they work, consume and interact with others.
Telecommuting advocates hope this global experiment in working remotely may provide lasting benefits.
Telecommuting has been on the rise in recent decades, and while there is no hard data yet on the effect of the coronavirus on work habits, it is accelerating the trend. Some 3.9 million U.S. employees worked from home in 2017 — nearly 3% of the total workforce and up 115% since 2005, according to a study by a company that helps match job seekers with employers.
Working remotely offers benefits ranging from greater job satisfaction to reduced traffic congestion, fuel costs and air pollution.
Employers and employees who learn how to stay productive during the COVID-19 crisis may ultimately develop more resilient workplaces and see broader private and public benefits in the long term.
The telecommuting gap
In normal times, there is a yawning gap between the number of people who could work from home and the number who do so.
At least 40% of all jobs could be performed remotely, a 2005 study in the Journal of Infrastructure Systems found. But in the European Union, for example, only one in 20 workers did so consistently in 2017, according to the bloc’s statistical office.
“There’s a huge discrepancy between the number of people that could be telecommuting and the number of people that are actually working at home,” said Glen Dutcher from Ohio University, who has been conducting studies on teleworking and productivity in the United States for more than a decade.
COVID-19 is closing this gap, with many workers now learning to work from home by developing new routines and ways to engage and communicate.
“This will be a test for both IT and management teams,” said one Canadian manufacturing executive whose firm has sent almost half of its staff to work from home.
“Our IT department has been working around the clock to ensure that VPN connections are working and everyone is connected,” she said.
The work ethic of the team matters.
More than basic connectivity and work space requirements are needed, experts say. There is a big difference between simply being at home during work hours and working remotely in a way that maintains or enhances business productivity.
Remote workers need to stay informed about current priorities and changes in daily operations. Employers need to ensure transparent planning by using tools such as team calendars, which help track employee productivity and performance.
“There’s often still a perception that workers are shirking their work when they’re telecommuting,” said Dutcher.
“One of our studies showed that the work ethic of the entire team is really important,” he said. “If someone thinks there are team members that are slacking off, it will affect everyone’s productivity.”
It is important that managers connect with their team every day and keep a detailed work plan. Teams should stay in regular contact, engaging in informal chats through platforms like WhatsApp or Slack.
From a business perspective, the unwelcome COVID-19 experiment provides an opportunity to prepare for similar events in the future while capitalizing on many benefits unrelated to the coronavirus.
For example, a typical employer in the United States can save an average of US$11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year, according to Global Workplace Analytics. The savings stem from lower operating costs on office space, energy and supplies, and higher productivity from better work, reduced absenteeism and lower employee turnover.
Some studies have found that teleworkers in general are more productive at work, particularly when conducting creative tasks. And a 2017 report by the International Labour Office and Eurofound found that employees who work from home experience greater satisfaction due to better work-life balance and higher perceived autonomy.
Given the considerable benefits of teleworking, experts believe many employers or managers may simply lack a precedent to follow or be fearful of change. Other employers may feel that in-office work is necessary to achieve workplace productivity or foster a strong company culture.
If COVID-19 helps bolster employer confidence in the viability of telecommuting, perceptions about the long-term feasibility of work-from-home options could change.
The rapid change in workplace habits triggered by COVID-19 explains in part why traffic congestion and air pollution have declined dramatically in some big U.S. cities, according to a recent New York Times analysis.
Traffic is not the only source of pollution. But the transport sector produces 24% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and a considerable proportion of air pollutants, according to the International Energy Agency.
Teleworking can dramatically reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“Increasing virtual meetings and telecommuting today could, without any dramatic measures, help to save more than three billion tons of CO2 in a few decades; this is equivalent to approximately half of the current U.S. CO2 emissions,” the WWF said.
Traffic jams costs the economy in lost time, wasted fuel and delayed deliveries. Traffic congestion in the EU is estimated to cost nearly €100 billion, or 1% of the EU’s annual economic output, according to the European Commission.
“We see congestion, generally speaking, rising every year,” said Gijs Peters, a data expert at TomTom, a technology firm that analyzes and publishes traffic data.
“We encourage people to look at the possibilities they have to spend less time in traffic, even if it’s working from home for just for one or two days during the week,” he said.
If the current pandemic can help demonstrate some of the benefits of telecommuting, it might play a role in moving societies towards cleaner and more livable cities.
Katherine Monahan is Senior Research Associate for the Smart Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa, where her research focuses on climate change. She is also a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.