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COVID-19 and greenhouse emissions: Can teleworking flatten both curves?

By Francesca Edralin

While the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are two scientific crises raising political controversy, the two issues possess another interesting intersection: Could the global response to COVID-19 offer a long-term solution to combat the climate crisis?

Over recent months, stay-at-home orders have led to a temporary plunge in greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, as much of the population stayed home more and traveled less. However, as governments gradually lift social distancing orders, more and more people are leaving their homes and transitioning back to old routines.

Yet, some aspects of the quarantine routine have the potential to translate into long-term lifestyle changes. In particular, teleworking offers a multitude of environmental benefits if continued after the quarantine period. Recent research shows that increased teleworking in communities reduces air pollution and traffic congestion.

In 2018, civil engineer and transportation systems analyst at the University of Illinois-Chicago Ramin Shabanpour published a study on the impacts of teleworking on local air pollution. In his study, Shabanpour identified the current populations in Chicago capable of telework. Then, he calculated what percentage of those populations participated in telework at the time. He found that only 12% of individuals who are capable of telework worked from home to some extent. Using 12% as the base, Shabanpour and his team developed a simulation that modeled a hypothetical “twin city” of Chicago.

“We spent a few years here in Chicago developing a transportation simulation platform which, in a nutshell, is a simulation-based twin city. Using a software known as the POLARIS model, we were able to simulate what we have in the real world,” he said.

Shabanpour and his team kept all data points constant in the simulation, except for the percentage of the population who worked from home which they increased from 12% to 50%. The simulation did not manipulate the frequency that Chicago residents worked from home, only increasing the percentage of teleworkers at the current frequency.

The results proved to Shabanpour and his team how beneficial teleworking can be for the environment.

“We found that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.7% because of an increase in telecommuting. When you talk about impact, this is actually a huge number because if you multiply 0.7% with current greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago, we find that an implementation like this can reduce 500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per day,” Shabanpour said.

Capable teleworkers do not need to solely work from home to produce these emission reductions. Shabanpour acknowledges that most teleworkers only work from home a few days per week, and they likely still drive when they telework in order to run errands. The simulation’s results account for the driving needs of teleworkers, because Shabanpour kept the frequency that teleworkers drive to work and run errands in real life constant.

Shabanpour’s study was one of the first to analyze teleworking’s impacts on air pollution and the environment. While he only examines telework patterns in the Chicago metropolitan area, his findings can apply to any area that suffers from air pollution and has a section of the population that is capable of telework.

As a result, Shabanpour has emerged as an advocate for telework. He believes that current efforts to reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions invest in the wrong solutions, instead of cost-efficient solutions like telework programs.

“We just invest billions and billions of funding into building new bridges and infrastructure – let’s start looking at this soft side of transportation. Focusing on these numbers, we can definitely reduce the transportation emissions and congestion that we have at a very low cost, compared to the big infrastructure projects that we have,” Shabanpour said.

As the quarantine period forced many companies to temporarily transition their workforce online, the potential for companies to commit to a long-term telework system makes Shabanpour’s research more relevant now than ever.

In the past, companies have hesitated to allow teleworking. Timothy Golden, a professor and telework researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, finds that companies assume teleworking would decrease employer satisfaction and productivity.

“Because you’re working away from the office, particularly if the rest of the office is still there, that has the potential to make you feel cut off or separated from people,” Golden said.

Golden asserts that hybrid teleworking programs, which allow employees to split their hours between working from home and in the office, alleviate employees’ concerns of feeling isolated from the workplace. He also recommends that managers assess which employees are capable of telework, meaning they can productively complete their tasks at home.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing scenario. It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Golden said.

Companies who supported teleworking before the pandemic prove that implementing a telework system increases productivity and company savings, in addition to reducing carbon footprints.

Dell, headquartered in Austin, Texas, is one company leading the global movement toward hybrid teleworking programs. Since implementing its “Connected Workplace” program, Dell allows employees to design a work-from-home schedule tailored to their preferences. Dell cuts 136 million travel miles and more than 35,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually through this program, as calculated in their most recent sustainability report.

John Pflueger, the principal environmental strategist at Dell who designed the Connected Workplace program, told Environment+Energy Leader, “We’re pleased with the flexibility it offers our employees and the positive consequences it has on carbon emissions.”

If the environmental impacts do not incentivize companies, perhaps the benefits in finances and productivity will. Dell’s recent sustainability report highlights that it saved $39.5 million from the Connected Workplace program, which allows the company to reduce the amount of office space they pay for and maintain. Dell also hires from a greater applicant pool, with the ability to hire top talent beyond the region of Austin.

“When a company is considering a work-from-home program or telecommuting or remote work, sustainability is probably not the primary reason why. The primary reasons are issues related more to work-life balance and being the sort of employer that the 21st-century employee has come to expect, but we found sustainability-related benefits are an important side effect,” Pflueger said.

Golden is hopeful that this quarantine period will help companies and employees realize the various benefits to teleworking.

“I think this is a defining moment for telework in that it is likely to be much more commonplace after this pandemic. Now that it’s forced on so many people, it’s changing mindsets because teleworking is no longer something that ‘other people do’, it is something that everyone does,” Golden said.

Shabanpour demonstrated the environmental benefits of teleworking scientifically, while companies such as Dell show how teleworking programs foster a more sustainable and cost-efficient workplace. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic showed many companies already have the means for telework, although they may not have taken advantage of it previously.

Perhaps what helps to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases now just may help flatten the curve of greenhouse gas emissions as well.

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