Since the 1973 oil embargo, and the nearly concurrent coining of the term “gridlock,” Americans have mused about telecommuting as the solution to many modern ills. When high-speed Internet began making its way into homes in the late 1990s, telecommuting seemed on the verge of a breakout. Why waste time in traffic jams when email can get to your home office just as quickly? The promise of returning 10 or so hours each week to workers — not to mention dramatic potential savings in office rental costs — sounded irresistible.
Instead, managers seemed too attached to the physical presence of their employees, and some employees wondered if their stay-at-home co-workers were really getting much done in their jammies. A bit of a backlash emerged after the turn of the century, reaching its apex when Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer effectively killed that company’s work from home program.
So much for leaving rush-hour traffic behind.
Today, a scant 3 percent of Americans telecommute most of the time, according to FlexJobs. That means just about as many Americans will suffer through daily “extreme commutes” — lasting more than 90 minutes, each way — as will take advantage of full-time telecommuting.
The Coronavirus might finally change that.
In reaction to the outbreak’s foothold in Seattle, big tech companies in the Pacific Northwest have quickly adopted telecommuting plans. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have all told employees to work from home whenever possible, and to stay there for most of March. So has King County, the local government in the Seattle area. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center told many of its employees they have no choice — they must work at home.
Early 2020 might turn into a forced social experiment that could finally answer the question: Do we need rush hour any more?
“While about 50% of people work from home at least half the week on a regular basis, we still see that only about 3-4% work from home full-time. Now, because of the coronavirus, we’re seeing a real focus on remote work that may very well be a tipping point in terms of wider-spread adoption of full-time remote work,” said Brie Weiler Reynolds, Career Development Manager and Coach at FlexJobs. “It seems that, in this latest situation, companies have more easily jumped to remote work as one big solution to keep employees safe, maintain continuity of operations, and handle the uncertainty day by day.”
Of course, not everyone can work from home. Bus drivers and security workers, for example, must remain at their posts. The Seattle Times has an important story about this newly and rapidly forming digital divide. That group cannot be ignored in this social experiment.
But it’s hard not to imagine Seattle companies might get used to all those empty desks, not to mention emptier highways, and with new work patterns in place, find a way to continue their ad-hoc work-from home arrangements long-term. It’s a stretch to look for silver linings in today’s climate, but climate researchers have found one when looking at China. Air pollution has plummeted there during the crisis. It’s easy to imagine that kind of unintended consequence in Seattle as well, as thousands of cars are taken off the road and gridlock is reduced.
Widespread adoption of telecommuting holds out big promises, FlexJobs says: 124 billion fewer car miles driven annually, 8 billion fewer trips, an $8 billion reduction in auto accident costs, 54 million tons less greenhouse gas emissions.
While most companies are sensibly making only short-term plans right now, Weiler expects virus-related work-from-home arrangements will probably last well past the end of March.
“Because the virus’s threat is ongoing and it’s hard to predict how long things may stay this way, we may see companies using remote work daily for the coming weeks or months, and realizing that it’s actually a productive, effective way to work over a long term basis,” she said.