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Some Climate Lessons From COVID-19: Can Working From Home Reduce GHG Emissions?

COVID-19 has shaken up the way America works. In response to the threat, offices across the country are locking their doors. Millions of workers are learning to work from home, having staff meetings by video and figuring out how to juggle conference calls and crying kids. This unplanned experiment has already yielded a helpful finding: millions are discovering that teleworking not only works, but often we are more productive. This realization holds significant potential because teleworking is one way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation is Humboldt’s largest category of greenhouse gas emissions. Commuting to and from work represents 30 percent of all vehicle miles traveled. Overwhelmingly — 76 percent of the time — we drive to work to work alone. And the average commute distance is 16 miles each way. Cumulatively, these trips represent a significant amount of carbon emitted. To reduce the environmental impact of transportation, we not only need to quickly switch to electric vehicles, we also need to reduce the total vehicle miles traveled.

Telecommuting, even if just a day or two a week, would cut a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that, based on this data, individuals would save on average of over 1,300 kg of carbon dioxide emissions — about one-twentieth of an average American’s total emissions. (Again, this is all based on averages and the individual savings could be lower or higher.)

Working from home can provide more time with family members!

Working from home has advantages beyond carbon savings. For employees, working for home gives more time for the worker. Teleworking is an excellent example of a sustainability initiative that also sustains people. I’m not speaking to the oft-spoken (and true) narrative, “if we take care of the planet, it will take care of us.” I’m speaking to the fact that people are happier when they have more quality time to spend with their loved ones. Most Americans spend more time with their coworkers than with their families. The average American commute involves 30 minutes in the car each way — an hour of unpaid life away from family, away from hobbies, away from the other parts of life that we work to support. If working from home means we get more work done in less time, then we have more energy to dedicate to our non-work relationships and non-work passions. Teleworking gives inherent flexibility to a schedule, allowing for you to, say, get dinner on the oven on your break or flip the laundry between emails. (I have a loaf of bread in the oven as I write this.) The ability to work from home is especially important for individuals with disabilities or for others who find travel difficult.

For employers, the benefits are also stark. Workers are actually more productive because they are able to better concentrate. Workers take shorter breaks and more hours are spent working. Job satisfaction rises and worker retention rises. Sick days drop.

Interested in teleworking? Your employer may already have a policy. It is California state policy to encourage telecommuting and each state agency is directed to have a policy in place. Humboldt County likewise permits teleworking and is looking to further ease the paperwork required because of the pandemic. Check out your HR manual for more on how to petition to work remotely. For private businesses, Humboldt can’t mandate more flexible working arrangements but you can always ask your employer. (Remember: they benefit too. And a quick Google should give you all the facts to muster a strong argument in favor.)

An office is often a nice place. We can form friendships over copier errors and find a sense of shared purpose. I often work at the conference table because I love those little interactions in the course of a day. But what we have found in “social distancing” is that we can still be social from a distance. Telecommuting is one little way that we can change our behaviors to improve our lives and the climate. After the facemasks seem out of fashion and our hands are no longer pruney from washing, let’s hope that teleworking stays around.

This article was originally published in the Times-Standard on March 18, 2020. 


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