If there’s been a silver lining to the deadly coronavirus pandemic and devastating stay-home orders, it’s been the dramatic drop in traffic congestion and resulting air pollution, much of it from employees working from home instead of driving to the office.
The Santa Clara County board of supervisors Tuesday will consider ways of making that last after the outbreak, with a “commute-free commitment” from Silicon Valley companies, making those practices continue as much as possible as stay-home orders ease.
“This is a really exciting opportunity that we have,” Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez said. “The coronavirus outbreak and shelter-in-place mandate have forced companies to devote time and money to make large-scale, commute-free work operational during the past seven weeks. Now is the time to expand and sustain this blueprint in Santa Clara County.”
Chavez’ office said they have not heard of any other government agency exploring an initiative to extend telework practices post-pandemic. Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major technology firms, said businesses embrace the concept.
“I think a lot of us, if our business model allowed, did have telecommute policies, and we have an opportunity through this experience to supersize those policies,” Guardino said.
But while Silicon Valley made telework possible through technology, its companies also have had resistance to adopting it on a wide scale. Seven years ago, Yahoo!’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer notoriously ended the company’s telework policy and ordered employees back to the office, a move critics called heavy-handed. Yahoo and other tech giants like Google and Facebook said at the time that innovations often come from random meetings in corridors or cafeterias in the workplace.
“There’s deep value in human interaction and there’s so much that does come out of water-cooler talk,” Guardino said. “Those chance meetings in the hallway do produce chemistry and magic that does lead to great ideas.”
Even so, telework was becoming more prevalent even before COVID-19 stay-home orders in March forced it on employers that wouldn’t have been allowed to operate otherwise.
According to the nonprofit Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., public policy organization, almost one in four U.S. employees across the education spectrum spent some hours on an average day working from home in 2018, and more than one in 20 usually worked from home.
The number of Americans working from home surpassed those taking public transit in 2017, according to the nonprofit Washington, D.C., research group Eno Center for Transportation.
And much has changed in recent years, with a number of new Silicon Valley companies making it even easier for employees to conduct work remotely, like San Francisco-based Slack Technologies, and San Jose-based Zoom Video Communications, both of which went public last year, as well as Cisco’s Webex.
Early this year, even before county health officials around the Bay Area issued the country’s first shelter-in-place order allowing only essential workplaces to remain open, many Silicon Valley companies already had begun pushing telework more aggressively to prevent office outbreaks, Guardino said. For the most part, it’s been working out just fine.
Nicholas A. Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor, said a lot of the fears and stigma about “shirking from home” have faded as companies have been forced to do it during the lockdown, and he envisions many employees continuing to work part of their week at home.
“One month down the road, we’ve all learned how to work from home,” Bloom said. “All the training, the reorganization, has already happened.”
Chavez’ proposal, which the board will consider Tuesday, calls for the administration to analyze expanding telework for the county government’s workforce of 22,000. It also calls for the administration to collaborate with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District on a “Clean Air Telecommute Challenge” for large employers with 50 or more employees, to help improve the Bay Area’s air quality.
Chavez said that in Silicon Valley, the average time for residents to get to work rose 25% in the last 15 years, transportation costs rose 21% in the last five years and 100,000 employees have endured three-hour “mega-commutes.” But traffic has now fallen 70 percent under the coronavirus lockdown.
The air-quality benefits over the last seven weeks are stunning: a 26% drop in carbon dioxide “greenhouse” gas, 20% reduction in airborne fine particulate matter and a 38% decline in nitrogen oxides, or smog.
“Now that we understand the opportunity,” Chavez said, “I think we have an obligation to pursue it.”
Guardino and other business leaders say they are supportive, so long as any resulting policies don’t force companies to do things that don’t work for them.
“She’s a smart leader,” Guardino said. “She knows the best policy comes through collaboration. Our only advice on making sure we get this right is recognizing that all employers are different and some categories of jobs are more appropriate to do remotely at home and some can never be done at home.”
Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council, a regional business group, agreed and said they would like to see a regional approach to expanding telework.
“We are certainly in support of expanded telecommuting,” Litvak said. “We have so many tools now, that actually makes it easier to work remotely.”
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Author: John Woolfolk