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I-75 Highway filled with gridlocked telecommuting traffic

Rx for the Earth: Telecommuting

by Stephanie Petrakos, guest contributor

It’s hard to believe that 2021 is around the corner. Looking back, 2020 will be remembered as a year of change, one that forced people all around the world globe to re-think how we approach life. For millions of Americans, adapting to a “new normal” involved working from home, or telecommuting.

Telecommuting comes with a multitude of benefits. Studies have shown that telecommuting leads to an increase in physical and mental well-being, which in turn increases productivity. The flexibility of working from home also helps reduce employee turnover and saves businesses money, as fewer office supplies are purchased and business infrastructure, like phones, copiers, and electricity costs fall.  [i]While telecommuting also caused the Earth to become healthier. There was a significant reduction in greenhouse gases. From a global standpoint, it was predicted in April that 2,000m tons of CO2 (MtCO2) would be cut this year, which is about 5.5% of total emissions in 2019. [ii]

What does this mean for Americans or specifically for Floridians? Vehicles contribute more greenhouse gases than any other source. Emissions from vehicles make up about 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States[iii]. On a local level, the EPA has stated that in 2017, Florida was the 3rd highest in CO2 emissions, 227.0 million metric tons[iv], the majority of that coming from the transportation sector, approximately 45%. However, there is hope for positive change. According to the Florida Department of Transportation’s 2018 Commuting Trends report, the number of telecommuters slightly increased both in Florida and nationally. In 2018, 6.2% of workers in Florida telecommuted, an increase of 0.1% from 2017. More people working from home means fewer cars on the road, less congestion and idling on our overburdened road network, and less emissions into our atmosphere.  Decreasing global emissions is important to Florida, a state that is particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.  Increases in global temperature will lead to stifling hot days in Southwest Florida, and also intense thunderstorms, and severe hurricanes.  Florida’s water sources and infrastructure are especially vulnerable to damage by these severe natural disasters.[v]

What’s standing in our way of making telecommuting a new way of life? There are several factors at play. Some jobs are fully or partially dependent on in-person interaction, such as waiters, surgeons, store associates, and teachers. However, many jobs could transition to telecommuting once the technological infrastructure is in place. This leads to the larger barrier of companies’ willingness to adapt to change.  Companies may have HR policies that thwart remote work, or there is managerial reluctance. While COVID-19 initially caused organizations to adjust quickly to telecommuting, telecommuting is seen as merely a temporary situation. As more employees begin to return to the office, those that seek to remain remote are potentially viewed as “slackers” or less team-oriented. A manager’s reluctance to embrace long-term telecommuting will stymie the environmental benefits we are starting to reap. Solutions to this type of reluctance involve corporate policy reform, corporate benefits plan reform, providing tax benefits or other incentives to encourage adoption. [vi]Another significant barrier is that U.S. infrastructure encourages car driving instead of alternative modes of transportation. Commuting to work is only one portion of travel. Trips are generated from grocery shopping, leisure, and picking up the kids from after-school activities, just to name a few reasons. If we truly want to see emissions drop, not only do we have to incentivize telecommuting, we also need to incentivize and make accessible alternative travel modes like public transit and bikes.

There are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and many ways to reduce them. So, let’s be clear, telecommuting is not the cure-all prescription for climate change. But telecommuting, even part of the week, is an easy and concrete way to drive fewer miles, reduce fuel use, and simultaneously improve the quality of life for employees.


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