86% commuted to work in a private vehicle, now half are working from home in the US

Telework could outlive the virus, lowering emissions E&E News | Scott Waldman

The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to permanently boost the popularity of telecommuting, say workplace experts — a societal shift that would have a profound impact on U.S. climate emissions. Due to the outbreak, millions more Americans are doing their jobs from home. And thanks to advances in technology — and a little nudge from widespread stay-at-home orders — the temporary fix could become much more commonplace. The shift in lifestyle would represent a major climate victory, said Harriet Tregoning, a former senior official in the Obama administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She helped cities plan for climate change. Fewer daily commuters would lead to a drop in vehicle emissions and traffic congestion, Tregoning said. It also could open up more urban streets for use by bicycle commuters or for public transportation. “I think it will really change people’s attitudes about what’s possible to get done with remote work, ditto for work travel, and all these things could have a salutary effect on climate change,” said Tregoning, who is now director of the New Urban Mobility project at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. The pandemic has prompted a number of societal changes — from a rise in bicycle commuting to a relaxation on regulations for telemedicine. None of those shifts, however, has the climate potential of taking cars off the road. Transportation accounts for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And the vast majority of employees around the country — 86% — commute to work in a private vehicle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But there is still plenty of untapped potential in telecommuting. Much of the country has connected to high-speed Internet in recent years, and yet only a small share of the workforce has shifted to teleworking, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, which tracks telecommuting trends. Before the pandemic, about 4% of U.S. employees worked from home, according to data collected by the firm. Now more than half the 135-million-strong U.S. workforce is doing so, according to Global Workplace Analytics. Managers, she said, would be key to whether the trend continues post-pandemic. “The biggest difference in support are managers that have not done it and those that have done it,” Lister said. “So the longer this goes on, the more managers will be comfortable with seeing, ‘Oh hey, they are really working; I can tell what they’re doing. They’re not going to be sitting on the sofa eating bonbons.”