Despite being in a global pandemic, essential low-wage workers, healthcare providers, knowledge workers and many others have continued to work. However, since the start of lockdowns in March, some 42 percent of the U.S. workforce has been from working home full-time.
The continued progression of COVID-19 has required many businesses to postpone their back-to-the-office dates to protect their workers and assuage their health concerns. Of the 42 percent of the workforce able to work remotely, some 73 percent would prefer not to go back due to fears over the disease's spread.
From Twitter to Amazon, major urban businesses have rolled out a variety of commuting policies as they contemplate going "back to the office." Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Shopify have shifted to permanent work from home arrangements for some, and Google will be working remotely until at least summer 2021.
Environmental researchers have warned that the unprecedented low-carbon levels due to stay-at-home orders could be followed by a surge in car usage as white-collar workers in densely populated urban areas attempt to evade public transportation. Climate scientists expect private vehicle usage to surpass pre-pandemic levels.
In May, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) issued an outright ban on public transportation, telling employees they had to take private cars to work. It was an appalling proposal, based on the false impression that public transit spreads coronavirus, and overturned just three weeks later. NYSE is still providing employees with reduced prices on parking, but the stock exchange hasn’t conducted any studies or investigations of what increased car usage might have on Lower Manhattan.
Assuming the COVID vaccine eventually becomes widely available this spring or at least distributed at a pace more in line with global standards, employers and employees could have more freedom to set the terms of their return.
Elsewhere, Bloomberg Media offers large reimbursements for commuting into work — up to $75 per day, or up to $1,500 in a given month. It’s a perk likely meant to encourage the use of private cars. Policies that favor driving to work over mass transit show a disregard for congestion, air quality and cities' overall livability. If every New Yorker consistently used private cars to commute to work, the city would be unlivable.
An expanding number of businesses, seeing no harm to their profitability from remote work, have arranged to switch to permanent work from home.
Lilac Nachum, a professor of international business at Baruch College, told me in an interview that the knowledge and innovation-based industries actually have the least to gain from working from home permanently. While many components of these jobs are the most straightforward to do online and could remain remote, a significant amount of creativity and innovation is lost without face-to-face interaction.
As Nachum notes, "What we've seen is that the knowledge economy has given a huge boom to the growth of cities. This interaction of people creates the necessary conditions for innovation, exchange of ideas and creativity. So for those kinds of industries, I think that it is extremely important to get back to work."
Considering that even the knowledge-based industries that work remotely need to bring people together, few industries can do well working entirely remotely. "I think we're left with a small number of jobs that can effectively be implemented remotely, which means companies basically have to prepare, should prepare for returning to the office. Fortunately, the vaccine is just around the corner," Nachum said.
Indeed, the knowledge industry has long been aware of the benefits of sustained in-person collaboration. Pre-pandemic, tech companies, including Google and Facebook, developed plans to create onsite housing at their campuses. Merging offices and housing has been hailed by some as the ultimate perk, a new type of "factory town," and a green solution to urban transportation problems by alleviating the burden of commuting.
However, these new company towns have led to new issues and exacerbated inequality. Under the current status quo, large tech companies have a habit of taking over their immediate areas by driving housing up, spurring gentrification, driving out long-time residents and increasing homelessness rates. This was the case in Seattle when Amazon moved its headquarters to the city with many of their workers living in close proximity and local businesses reliant on their more affluent workers’ patronage.
Regardless of whether such company towns benefit the environment by cutting back on commutes, although fraught with other political problems, the issue is relatively moot because creating a company town is not an option for the vast majority of firms.
By fall, most workers could be returning to traditional offices. Assuming the COVID vaccine eventually becomes widely available this spring or at least distributed at a pace more in line with global standards, employers and employees could have more freedom to set the terms of their return.
This year, public transit use in New York City has dipped as low as 80 percent. Many of us are less than enthusiastic about resuming our old commutes by bus and subway. Even though mass transit creates far fewer emissions per individual per kilometer than cars, people think subways and buses are major carriers for the disease even though no evidence supports this. Cars cause congestion, increase commute times for all and lead to urban sprawl.
Companies concerned with climate change could increase the appeal of transportation alternatives by developing new initiatives to discourage private vehicle use. Under this scenario, our badly under-used public transit might begin to come back from our fiscal deficit. Public, mass forms of high-density transportation are the future our climate relies on. Now more than ever, we need free, comfortable, easily accessible public transit to help us recover from both this health crisis and the climate crisis.