In the last few months, as it became clear that the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus would eventually overwhelm health services, governments around the world started to mandate social distancing in public places to protect their citizens.
Social distancing, which typically involves keeping a certain distance from others and avoiding large gatherings, is a sound non-pharmaceutical intervention commonly used during epidemics. It prevents person-to-person transmission of contagions and helps authorities to contain disease outbreaks.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries not only mandated basic social distancing, but also closed down schools, shops and offices, cancelled all conferences and meetings, and banned domestic and international travel.
These shutdowns sent economies into meltdown and caused real financial hardship for small businesses and people in the gig economy in many countries. Some companies, whose workers are able to work remotely, however, managed to not only continue business as usual amid the chaos, but increase their employees’ productivity.
The success of remote work is no coincidence. Studies have shown that when it is done right, remote work can improve employee productivity, creativity and morale. It has also been established that remote work leads workers to take fewer sick days and less vacation time, resulting in more workdays overall. Moreover, it can save businesses thousands of dollars a month per employee in office and other expenses.
After being compelled to invest in tools that make remote work easier and more efficient due to the coronavirus pandemic, and experiencing the benefits of this new work model, many companies are considering allowing their employees to work from home indefinitely.
Social media giant Twitter recently announced that it would support employees, who are able and willing to work from home to do so “forever”. Many other tech giants, from Facebook to Google, also said they are planning to support remote work “for the foreseeable future”.
The business world’s apparent move towards remote work is good news not only for companies themselves and their employees, but also for the wider society and the environment. Businesses can help the fight against climate change and protect public health by continuing to support remote work where possible even after the end of this pandemic.
Widespread remote work practices would reduce the number of vehicles on our roads. This would lead to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. In the European Union, road transportation accounts for 72 percent of total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while in the US emissions from all transportation – cars, trucks, trains, ships, aeroplanes and other vehicles – make up 29 percent.
The world has already seen an average of a 6 percent drop in greenhouse gases amid the coronavirus pandemic due to lockdowns and industry shutdowns. While it would be impossible to keep to this level after the end of the pandemic, remote work can help us hold on to some of the environmental gains we made during this crisis.
It is easy to see how fewer cars on our roads could help mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. This could also mean densely populated cities would be less polluted, residents would have access to fresher air and children would be less vulnerable to illnesses like pneumonia.
With cleaner air, improvements in health can happen fast. As a report from the American Thoracic Society notes, “Within a few weeks, respiratory and irritation symptoms, such as shortness of breath, cough, phlegm, and sore throat, disappear; school absenteeism, clinic visits, hospitalisations, premature births, cardiovascular illness and death, and all-cause mortality decrease significantly.” Further, eliminating the stress of commuting could lead to lower blood pressure and a decrease in risks associated with cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), causes 7.5 million deaths globally every year.
Fewer vehicles on roads would also result in fewer traffic accidents. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, globally, road traffic crashes was the sixth leading cause of death in 2017. According to WHO, in 2018 alone, 1.35 million people around the world lost their lives in road traffic accidents. On average, road traffic crashes cause 3,287 deaths per day, and injure or disable thousands of others. Estimates by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that every year, 3 million people are injured in nonfatal crashes in the US. Furthermore, medical care costs and productivity losses in the US due to car crashes was above $75bn in 2017.
Remote work would also help reduce some of the disadvantages women have in the workplace and contribute to maternal and infant heath. Many women around the world still do not have adequate maternity leave, and others choose not to use the maternity leave they have in full because they cannot survive on the limited maternity pay they receive or are scared of harming their career prospects by staying away from the office for too long. Many new mothers who return to work a few months – or even weeks – after giving birth also face a difficult choice between either giving up on breastfeeding completely or enduring the stresses of pumping milk in the workplace. Remote work can resolve all these issues. New mothers can return to work in the comfort of their homes, not endure long commutes before their bodies fully recover, remain close to their babies even during working hours, and breastfeed or pump comfortably in private.
To be sure, remote work also has some disadvantages, for some workers, such as decreased work-life balance, isolation and management difficulties. But businesses can overcome these challenges by building up strong communication channels between employees, listening and addressing the workers’ concerns and making sure that employees have the ability to switch off from work and focus on their private lives on weekends and after-hours.
It is also true that not everyone can work from home, and remote-work is only an option for a privileged minority who work in some white-collar industries. Nevertheless, remote work practices benefit all members of the society, including the ones who are not able, or willing, to work from home. If everyone who can work from home does work from home, others will enjoy easier, safer, less stressful commutes, cleaner streets, better air quality and less overwhelmed public health services.
It is clear that coronavirus is redefining the future of work and providing a great opportunity for establishing long-term policies that can increase the health and happiness of employees and nations, while also helping businesses increase their profits. Remote work can change the world for the better. All businesses that can should consider allowing their employees to work from home even after our fight against coronavirus is over.