Can flexible work help save the planet?

Until shelter in place orders are lifted, COVID-19 is causing a revolution in how we work. A “massive work from home experiment” is right now underway according to a recent ABC News report. This experiment may equate to our society test-driving a new flexible work model with the potential to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, without new taxes or costly mandates.

As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention” — and many businesses are adapting to the new conditions because current circumstances give them no other choice. Conference calls and video conferencing is replacing in-person team meetings. Instead of walking into a colleagues’ office, now workers are sending a text, a social media message, or picking up the phone.

This massive experiment in flexible workplaces is not one we asked for but is analogous to renting a car. When reserving a rental car, most travellers only have the option of requesting a general type of car, such as a compact or a mid size but not a specific model. But after driving a new car model, 58 percent of car renters consider buying the same model and about a third actively start car shopping for it after a good rental experience, according to a 2015 survey by Enterprise Holdings. In short, they had to experience the car to realize they liked it.

There are many things to like about flexible workplaces. Businesses can save money on office space and associated costs, workers can save money on gas, and workers can watch children or care for a loved one while working. Flexible workplaces also allow workers to live where they want, instead of having to choose where they live based on their job. 

There is also the potential for major benefits to the planet without any negative unintended consequences. California leads the nation with 5.8 percent of workers currently telecommuting at least half the time. The Institute for Gas Price Reduction’s hometown of Roseville ranks among the top ten California cities for telecommuting, at 8.6 percent (Berkeley came in first), according to US Census data. 

There is still much room to grow. Telecommuting grew by 110 percent in the last decade nationally and 56 percent of workers hold jobs compatible with a work from home arrangement according to research released in 2017 by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs. 1 million more workers working from home would equate to an emissions reduction of 870,000 tons of greenhouse gases avoided, based on EPA method calculations.

Programs currently exist that may offer a model for California. In Montana, a “Come Home and Bring Your Job With You” campaign in partnership with the Montana Chamber of Commerce helps workers return to Montana and take their big city salaries home with them through telecommuting. In Eastern Kentucky, Teleworks USA, launched as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is connecting small town residents with high-demand, high-growth telecommuting opportunities. 

California’s current approach to climate change has resulted in motorists paying among the nation’s highest gas prices according to GasBuddy. Maybe it’s time for more creative solutions? Flexible workplaces may be just the answer for gains to the environment without the pain at the pump.

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