In March, I made a somewhat ignorant, quasi-elitist post about the benefits of telework and the interventions that governments can make to support it. Now that I’ve had the time to reflect, I’m going to self-criticize my own thoughts. Too often, the discourse on telework comes from the narrative of your typical “white-collared” knowledge worker in the centre of an urban area. Given that as much as 12% of Ontarians live in communities unserved or underserved by broadband and the fact that many occupations cannot be done remotely, telework is clearly not a one-size-fits-all solution to keep everybody afloat during these tough times, nor is it necessarily “accessible”. One major theme that has since emerged repeatedly from the COVID-19 discussions online (ironically) is the disproportionate impact that social distancing measures are having on marginalized demographics. Even in well-connected urban areas, many front-line workers don’t have the option to work from home and are therefore faced with the daunting choice of either exposing themselves to germs while on the job or otherwise losing their income, whereas those with the luxury of working remotely can continue to pay their bills and maintain their lifestyles with minimal disruption, and children from lower-income households lacking access to online learning resources fall behind while their more affluent peers who can leverage e-learning motor ahead. Even job interviews now are conducted over GoToMeetings and I’ve seen professional conferences delivered digitally via Zoom, which means that those lacking access to the necessary technologies are now completely cut off from employment, networking and learning opportunities. The current situation further exposes the need for not just broadband internet but also the need to maintain transit operations despite reduced ridership and the need for the social safety net and emergency relief funding to get into the hands of citizens and workers. I expect that any post-pandemic government resiliency strategy be based on a holistic range of perspectives to address the needs of people from various demographics and economic sectors, not all of whom should be expected to participate in the digital universe. For some people, it may be “about the journey” after all.
The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for employers to test their off-site work policies and evaluate their impact on productivity and work performance. For governments and planning authorities, it offers a window to observe the impact on travel demand and potential return on investment of government-led interventions and messaging to encourage working from home. “Telework”, “telecommuting”, “distributed work” or “remote work” refers to working from a location other than the central office at least part of the time (Source: teleworktoolkit.com). Telework helps address several common goals and priorities simultaneously including accessibility, emissions reduction, and cost savings for employers, employees and goverment.
The lack of mobility options is a barrier preventing access to employment for those in remote areas and people with disabilities. A home working arrangement enables workers to provide their own work accommodations in a familiar place with close access to caregivers and personal service workers, provided that they have access to the required equipment and technologies. Further, it allows those who are ill or immunocompromised to work in self-isolation.
Any additional home energy consumption associated with home offices can be offset by the reduced volume of passenger vehicles idling in gridlock traffic.
Cost Savings for Employers, Employees and Governments
Employers can reduce employee turnover and absenteeism as well as office space needs while employees reduce their own spending on transportation, which costs Canadian households a total of $202.3 billion annually – second only to shelter in terms of major spending categories. Lister, et al. estimate that the annual return on investment of a federal telework progrm, if implemented effectively, would be $14 billion annually.
Governments often play a leading role in supporting telework by offering employers with toolkits and templates of corporate policies, agreement terms, employee/manager agreement applications, assessments/checklists, and various other resources. See this toolkit from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Or see the State of Oregon’s Teleworking tookit.
Planning authorities can request residential property developers to include study rooms or “wifi rooms” in floorplans, such as the one in my building, shown below. These rooms can provide teleworkers a refuge from roommates, children, pets, and other distractions at home.
Translink, the transit authority in the Vancouver region, identified telework as an important component of their trip reduction strategy during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Contrarily, our very own regional transit authority in the GTHA, Metrolinx, doesn’t even have the mandate to support employers on telework due to Bill 57 enacted 2018, which reduced their madate to strictly just transit.