Coronavirus work-from-home policies give climate plans a boost

Google has asked all of its North American employees to work from home until at least April 10 to stop the spread of COVID-19. It’s the most drastic in a spate of similar recommendations from Facebook, Twitter, Apple and many other big tech companies.

These companies employ hundreds of thousands of people. Given the scale, it could have a big impact on the climate.

Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in North America, and a lot of that comes from commuting. 

For example, if the four-million-plus people in Canada whose jobs could be done from home did so twice a week, it could remove the equivalent of 385,231 cars from the road and cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.9 million tonnes, according to a 2011 report from the Telework Research Network commissioned by the City of Calgary.

“There’s no quicker, easier, cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than not drive,” said Kate Lister, lead author of that report and president of Global Workplace Analytics, a U.S.-based firm that helps companies plan for the future of work.

In the longer term, emissions savings can be even greater, as telework policies allow companies to reduce the amount of office space they must heat, power and equip. That also saves money.

That’s why many cities, including Calgary, Vancouver, Saskatoon and even smaller communities like Halton Hills, Ont., include telecommuting as one of their plans to reduce climate change.

But the climate benefits go beyond mitigation. Telecommuting infrastructure also instils resilience against the extreme weather that’s increasing with climate change. And it’s part of the climate change adaptation plans for some cities, such as Waterloo, Ont.

A decade ago, the federal government invested $800,000 in WORKshift, a program to support telework throughout the Calgary region. When the city was hit with a massive flood in 2013 that forced a lot of people to work from home, many were already equipped to do so.

“It played a big role in the continuation of government in that flooding situation,” Lister said. “Employers already had the experience, and that’s really key.”

She noted that enabling telework isn’t necessarily simple. It means buying and configuring equipment like laptops, enabling secure file and resource access in the cloud and, importantly, training. “The biggest thing is training managers to manage by results rather than butts in seats,” she said.

She added that the longer employees work from home, the more likely it is that employers start to realize other benefits. That can include cost savings, higher productivity, fewer unscheduled absences, better employee retention and greater flexibility to scale up and scale down, because doing so doesn’t hinge on costs like office space. 

Lister said support for telework often fizzles after events like floods are over. But coronavirus could be different. “It almost feels like this one could be a tipping point,” Lister said, noting that up until now, telework has been growing slowly and steadily at about 10 per cent a year.

She said she’s already hearing hints from companies such as global office real estate giant CBRE that this could “fundamentally change” the nature of workplaces and offices in Asia. And it seems to be spreading to other continents.

 “I do think,” Lister said, “this coronavirus is going to leapfrog the trend.”

— Emily Chung

Reader feedback

One theme that has emerged with What on Earth? readers in recent weeks is the unfortunate intersection of sustainable consumption and concern about the coronavirus. 

Nicole Fallon wrote about visiting her local Starbucks in Ajax, Ont., where she was told the store would not fill ceramic mugs. “They informed me that … a new policy had been implemented whereby no reusable cups of any kind, whether the ceramic mugs they have in store or ones customers bring themselves, can be used now…. The barista specifically stated that this policy was a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Needless to say I was shocked and dismayed to think that this policy will not only generate a whole lot of extra garbage, but it may also discourage customers from the practice of using reusable vessels in future.”

Jennifer Peach wrote about a similar experience at Bulk Barn. “When I arrived at my local Bulk Barn on the weekend I discovered a sign on their door indicating they’ve temporarily suspended their reusable container program due to an ‘overabundance of caution’ surrounding coronavirus.”

Peach said she was concerned about this change “because it is really difficult for people to change their habits to reduce their production of garbage, [and] it’s really easy to fall back into the habit of single-use plastic bags.”

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