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COVID-19 and the Rise of Remote Work

By Jonathan Slason

With more than 300 million Americans subject to some type of state or local stay-at-home order meant to combat the spread of COVID-19, transportation planners are grappling with the travel forecasting implications of the pandemic.

In addition to the ongoing health crisis caused by COVID-19, the transportation network has experienced a historic shock to the system. Traffic, transit ridership, and air travel have all undergone unprecedented dips as millions of Americans transition to remote work and limit travel outside the home to essential trips.

However, there is an even bleaker reality facing some communities. Foot traffic and commercial activity have both ground to a halt as state- and local-level policies enacted to promote social distancing and “flatten the curve” limit in-person business operations. This has created severe hardships for small businesses.

With many unknowns, planners are uniquely positioned to begin asking important questions, including where we go from here and how we will work after the pandemic ends. While no one has all the answers, relevant data points and best practices can help planners, businesses, and their communities as they begin to chart a new path forward.

In a matter of weeks, the number of Americans who work from home has zoomed to record numbers—and the data are striking

Across the world, people are experiencing new ways to interact, do business, and be social with each other through periods of isolation. According to Netskope, in just two months, remote weekday work among knowledge workers grew exponentially, approaching 60% by the end of March (up from around 27% before COVID-19).

Gallup recently confirmed those remote work percentages in a recent poll that asked employed Americans if they had worked from home during the COVID-19 crisis. Sixty-two percent answered in the affirmative.

In fact, Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) estimates that “56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work.” By the end of 2021, GWA estimates that, due in part to COVID-19, “25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week.”

Many of these remote workers now rely on videoconferencing to stay in touch. Popular tools such as Zoom have experienced record growth, and platforms such as Microsoft Teams have witnessed similar spikes in daily active users, growing by 1,000% in March alone.

As more workers work from home, fewer vehicles are being driven by commuters. Google, which recently started making its Community Mobility Reports available for free to the public, has observed double-digit percentage shifts in travel. Nationally, the most recent data from April 5 revealed a 40% reduction in workplace mobility activity but a 13% increase in residential mobility activity, which aligns with employers and their employees shifting to remote work practices.

Another company, Unacast, has developed a Social Distancing Scoreboard that is designed to “empower organizations to measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing initiatives at the local level.” Their data are used to visualize travel reductions and score states based on how much mobility, including commuting behaviors, has declined from the pre-COVID-19 baseline. Unacast has observed a similar, across-the-board dip in travel.

Remote work will produce long-term behavioral changes related to how Americans interact

Microsoft’s own analysis of how its users engage with Teams has revealed subtle behavioral changes indicative of more flexibility finding its way into people’s routines.

For one, the amount of time between a person’s first and last daily use of Teams increased by over one hour in March. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are working more; it could indicate workers are structuring their day in a way that allows them to meet existing personal obligations such as childcare or homeschooling.

Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft, has observed that remote workers are no longer an afterthought (since everyone is working remotely in most cases). He has noted how the Teams chat function has become an essential part of meetings as coworkers provide real-time feedback and suggestions.

These subtle behavioral shifts, derived largely from the experience of having to work remotely, often for the first time, will have lasting implications when it comes to how people interact and collaborate—even if many of these workers eventually return to offices.

For transportation planners, these remote work lessons are transferrable to the public meeting setting. In response to COVID-19, many local governments and school and planning boards have transitioned to remote sessions. These virtual meetings come with some new challenges, but they also offer new opportunities for engagement.

Similarly, services like telemedicine are seeing spikes in use and popularity as COVID-19 forces doctors and patients to reevaluate the need for in-person interactions and diagnostic sessions. Across the whole of society, there is going to be a bottom-up explosion in demand for the increased flexibility being piloted through remote work.

We expect some degree of permanent shift in behaviors will occur as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

Many workers are being shifted into remote work arrangements by state and local orders, but even once these are lifted, many employees and their employers may reevaluate their commutes or their leased office space, respectively.

RSG is actively considering what-if scenarios to help answer the planning questions that arise from the anticipated shift to remote work and the associated behavior changes among workers. If we can identify the goals and vision of what should be achieved and select the right metrics, then we can also develop strategic planning models to test those combinations.

These planning approaches and the models used will help practitioners evaluate myriad scenarios, including those that explore the effects of varying degrees of remote work adoption after COVID-19. Importantly, such tools will help planners and their communities respond to and prepare for the next normal, in whatever form that takes.

Jonathan Slason, PE is a Director of Planning at RSG in its Burlington office. His interest is on how we can leverage emerging technologies to improve our world with a growing population, funding challenges, aging infrastructure, and the changing climate all while creating thriving and desirable places for us to live, work, and play. This entry originally appeared here.

Photo by Julie Campoli.