Shelter-in-place orders in response to the COVID-19 virus forced a dramatic increase in working remotely. Most estimates agree that more than 50 percent of workers have been working remotely during the pandemic. According to the Global Work from Home Experience Survey, working from home among white collar workers rose from 31 percent to 88 percent.
Many recent articles have predicted that working remotely will continue long after the pandemic. Some employers would prefer this. Twitter, Facebook, and other large tech companies have told their employees they can work from home through the end of the year and possibly beyond. Most estimates indicate that more than 70 percent of employees would like the flexibility of working remotely for part of the week.
When the pandemic struck, most businesses were not ready to switch to a remote workforce. Few of their Emergency Planning and Business Continuity Plans considered something like this. Tech companies and large well-resourced corporations had the easiest transition. Smaller businesses have shown less confidence. According to Frank Costello Jr. President & CEO of the Dutchess County Chamber of Commerce, a majority of panelists in a recent webinar on reopening said they did not plan significant increases in remote work beyond the crisis. The primary reasons given were questionable productivity and management challenges related to confidence and trust.
Not all jobs can be done remotely, and not all employers are ready to manage a remote workforce. Still, this forced experiment has taught us a lot. More can be done remotely than most of us believed, and there are benefits as well as challenges. Each job type, each corporate culture, and every individual is different, which makes developing standardized guidelines and making a massive shift toward increased remote work challenging.
Employees have expressed a clear preference (70 percent to 80 percent) to work from home, but even at Facebook only 20 percent indicated they wanted to do this full time. Employees believe that the ability to work from home on occasion improves their job satisfaction, work/life balance, and productivity. Employee concerns include isolation, lack of collaboration and career advancement. Employers also see benefits: business continuity, reduced operating costs, increased productivity, happier employees, and the ability to recruit and retain talent. Concerns for employers are productivity, difficulty managing a remote workforce, perceived loss of creativity and innovation, and difficulty measuring and tracking performance.
If we can sustain the expansion in remote work wherever it makes sense, the benefits will extend beyond employers and employees. New York's new Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), has challenged us with ambitious carbon reduction goals. According to the US Energy Information Administration the transportation sector accounted for 47 percent of New York's CO2 emissions from fossil fuel from 1980 to 2017. Unlike most measures to reduce emissions, increasing remote work can begin to produce results immediately with modest investment.
For many, this experience with remote work has been a first. For employers and employees alike, decisions were made. Mistakes happened. Still, habits were broken, new practices were learned, and the unknown became known. Getting people or corporations to change is hard. We cannot underestimate the opportunity now to make significant progress toward achieving the state's carbon reduction goals while reducing congestion and pollution, increasing job satisfaction, productivity, and profitability by supporting the expansion of remote work.
What actions need to be taken to make the most of the opportunity? Employers are the key. How do we help them transition?
• Assist in developing remote work policies and plans. Organizations with plans in place transitioned to shelter-in-place more successfully than those without.
• Incentivize or mandate employers in industries where remote work makes sense, to institute remote work programs that result in a targeted reduction of 25 percent of pre COVID-19 work commutes.
• Create a business-to-business mentor program, drawing on the experience of employers like IBM, MasterCard and many others that have had robust telework programs for decades.
• Build an open access repository of resources such as best practices, policy, plan agreement templates, contacts for consultancy services and more.
• Provide training for managing a remote workforce, including performance evaluation and other areas identified by employers.
COVID-19 has presented us with a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of this hard-earned experience to support and encourage remote working. The time is now to learn, refine, promote, and support remote working in New York. The time is now to leverage this experience. Carpe diem!
John Lyons is a transportation professional, sustainability leader, solar entrepreneur, and business developer with passion to address the climate crisis and create a clean energy future.