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Working from home to stay with us?

Janelle Dumalaon
May 4, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has compelled workers around the world to work from home. Global air quality has been transformed as a result. When the crisis has passed, will those who can work from home still be allowed to?

Man working from home
Image: picture-alliance/A. Franke

Germany is gradually reopening public life after weeks of coronavirus-prompted restrictions. It follows European neighbors like Austria and Denmark in doing so, and other countries further ahead on the coronavirus timeline such as China. Other countries are watching as they plan similar moves.

It might not be long before those who have been working from home leave their video-conferencing software idle, put on clothes fit for public consumption, get in their cars and drive to work. Further down the line, those without their own vehicles may mull buying cars, as the experience of a pandemic stokes wariness of public transportation.

That could be a setback for the environment. In metropolises bound by stay-at-home orders, fewer vehicles on the road have helped air pollution drop by double-digit percentages. A study from IQAir, an air quality technology company, showed a 60% drop in fine particulate matter in New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, a 44% drop was recorded. Social media has featured many photos showing blue skies and clear views into the distance, all over the world.

"Pollution definitely has been declining quite dramatically," says Ken Gillingham, an energy and environmental economist at Yale University. "And that's a combination of reduced transportation, along with turning down industrial facilities, large commercial buildings, and having people stay at home."

Do we have to return?

Industrial facilities and commercial buildings are in different stages of emerging from shutdown around the world. This is inevitable. But is it inevitable that we all, one day, return to our offices?

In 2018, a team including Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability scientist at the University of Lund, surveyed studies of behaviors where emissions reductions could be measured — such as meat consumption and household energy use — and found that working from home reduced the most emissions of all interventions studied.

"Working from home as opposed to driving into work substantially reduces pollution. And that's both climate pollution — greenhouse gases, and particle pollution," she told DW. "Some greenhouse gases last thousands of years, essentially forever, in our atmosphere. In contrast, the particle pollution that affects our health most immediately and directly is shorter acting. We do see an immediate effect from less driving and less burning of less gasoline on air quality."

In other words: Any driving you eliminate adds up to a big difference.

It doesn't work for all

The large-scale home working experiment triggered by the coronavirus has shown that working from home, can well, work, for certain segments of the population. At least from an environmental or public health perspective, there are few downsides. It's surely worth considering whether those in a position to work from home should continue doing so.

"Of course there could be a large percentage of people who will simply go back to the old routine when the coronavirus crisis is over," says Johannes Schuler of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. "But this trend that people will work from home more often, I think this will stay. Before there was huge skepticism as to how well it worked. Now many had to try it."

Woman sitting on the floor at home
Working from home certainly has a number of advantages. But can it be the new normal even after the coronavirus crisis?Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/McPHOTO

Both Schuler and Nicholas point to transport psychology as a potential driver of change in the world of work.

"What we know from past studies is that interventions from disruption tend to be stickier, meaning they tend to last longer," said Nicholas. "We've seen that, for example, in studying freeway closure. It showed that people who had been driving normally and then weren't able to, because of the freeway closure, switched over to public transit. Many of them continued that behavior even after the freeway was opened."

What this indicates is that a transport habit, once formed, is hard to shake. Telecommuting, once in place, might stay in place; at least to a greater degree than was once usual. According to Nicholas, people working from home tend to reduce the overall amount of travel — including non-work related trips, say on the weekends.

And, again every little bit helps.

"When there is a small percentage of people who now work a little bit more from home, this is always positive for the environment," Schuler told DW. "If only 10% of all employees would start with one day working from home per week, this would result in a huge effect."

But turning working from home into a widespread social norm is an unlikely scenario, given that not everybody can do it.

"It's a little bit harder if you're talking about, say, workers in industrial facilities, over white collar workers going to a large commercial building like a bank," said Gillingham.

Widespread misgivings among executives

And even the current experience with stay-at-home orders might not be enough to force a change in employer preference for physical presence, once these orders are lifted.

"Some companies believe their workers don't really work from home in the same way they would work in the offices and in that way try to prevent any work-from-home approaches," says Schuler. "The other aspect is that they don't even know that working from home might be environmentally beneficial. I think it is simply not a common-sense thing for companies."

It's also far from given that every worker able to do it would want to. For every employee finding freedom in keeping work and life in one place while totally eliminating travel time, there is likely to be another struggling to compartmentalize the two without distinct settings. But giving employees the choice could count toward greater benefit for all.

Speaking of greater benefit: No one is suggesting that measures put in place during a pandemic that has caused terrible human suffering and hardship should be the basis for a sustainable future. Nor is a change of work habits any substitute for a real transition to a low-carbon economy.

But as the disruption wrought by the pandemic forces us all to reflect on our working life, the role telecommuting should play in that new world should not be ignored whenever the dust finally settles.