One of the things that I’ve been focusing on for about 20 years is the question of social resilience. What characteristics of our society make us more resilient to unexpected events? How are things like governance and the economy structured so that we’re able to benefit from periodic positive phenomenon (like mild winters), and also withstand episodic negative phenomena, like the regular (but not easily predictable) evolution of a particularly contagious/virulent viral strain.
With COVID-19 and all the social-distancing/telework guidance floating around, something I wrote about in the 2010 aftermath of the Great Recession takes on a new relevance – telecommuting, aka “telework.” My focus at that time was on several concerns: the impacts of the recession on the economy, the growing development of alternatives to commuting (digital and distributed options like Über), and continued concerns about climate change and the desire by some to reduce society’s use of fossil fuels, most of which continue.
What I found when studying this idea (2010 data) was that both teleworkers and their employers could reduce energy use and save money. Over the course of a year, the average American could save about 340 gallons of gas, more than one thousand dollars in commuting costs, and more than three tons of carbon-dioxide emissions by teleworking. Annually, a worker with a one-way commute of twenty-two miles could save about 50% of the annual energy consumption of an average household. Employers also benefitted: for example, with 40% of its employees teleworking, IBM had reduced office space by 78 million square feet and gained $2.9 billion between 1995 and 2010. And workers were more productive: a group called The Telework Research Network found a 25% reduction in workforce attrition from teleworkers, and a 27 % increase in productivity on telework days.
More relevant to COVID-19 were the findings of a study in Science at the time: Brad Allenby and Jonathan Fink, writing in Science, observed that dispersing assets makes companies less vulnerable to targeted attacks, disasters like tornadoes, and diseases spreading among employees. In addition, they explained: “A dispersed workforce enhances resiliency in more subtle ways. . . The response to the September 11 attacks indicates that post-event stress and anxiety (which is a major purpose of many terrorist attacks) can be relieved substantially if arrangements are in place that enable dispersion of the workforce, especially to a home environment where they are both more comfortable and feel themselves less of a potential target.”
The challenge is that both corporate culture and government culture are deeply entrenched, and hard to change. Both senior executives and senior governmental officials gauge how important they are in the old Roman style: by the size and (perceived) enthusiasm of their retinue. Being able to lead visitors past your diligent group of hard-working employees to your nice corner office is a massive status display that people are reluctant to give up.
Economic motivations have, (and should) eventually prevail in the private sector, but government is not often constrained by such motivations as profit and loss. At the very least, however, government can get out of the way. As I pointed out way back in 2010, tax policies can serve as deterrents to telecommuting, supporting the “big retinue of warm bodies” status quo. That means breaking down tax barriers and regulatory barriers that needlessly constrain telework.
Telework-reforms are something we can easily implement moving forward from COVID-19 that would let us learn from a crisis and immunize ourselves better against future challenges. It’s a rare win-win opportunity to turn, as the Chinese might say, a crisis into an opportunity