The year 2019 in Arlington foreshadowed the telecommuting renaissance of these coronavirus days. An eye-popping 41% of Arlington residents surveyed teleworked “at least occasionally” in 2019, part of a steady climb from 22% in 2007, according to Mobility Lab’s 2019 State of the Commute Survey for Arlington. For those who worked in Arlington (as opposed to living here) 35% reported teleworking in 2019. The actual numbers are slightly higher, since nearly a third who teleworked in special situations did not count themselves as teleworkers. The survey also reveals that some 35% of residents in the greater DC region teleworked at least occasionally, 6% fewer than in Arlington.
This telework bubble took place in a county where only 41% of workers reported driving alone on their commutes in 2019, down from 52% in 2007, with 40% taking transit and 8% biking or walking. This compares favorably with the 57% drive-alone rate in the overall region in 2019. Thanks to its long-term smart-growth and pro-transit policies, Arlington is a national leader in getting people out of the single-occupant cars that cause congestion, worsen air quality, and contribute to climate change. The county outshines the overall region, itself noted for transit, biking, and walking. Notably, Arlington has a rate of transit use double that of nearby, sprawling Fairfax County.
The numbers are even more encouraging than they might first appear because even a small increase in teleworking can greatly improve other people’s commutes. This is because as traffic grows on a roadway with fixed capacity, bottleneck-related congestion becomes increasingly dominant. The survey revealed even bigger benefits, since teleworkers tend to choose the worst traffic days to stay home and not contribute to the congestion.
Still, the 2019 numbers revealed considerable room for growth in teleworking, since 29% of Arlington residents who did not telework “could and would” if allowed. The National Capital Region 2019 State of the Commute Survey Report cites a 2016 survey that 25% of commuters in the DC region “who did not telework ‘could and would’ telework if given the opportunity.” Moreover, the number of respondents saying “their jobs were not compatible with telework dropped, from 51% in 2007 to 34% in 2019.” It seems that new technology, and comfort levels with that technology, had caused a pent-up desire for more telework when the coronavirus hit, forcing a grand social experiment that the region was already primed for.
A Dream Delayed: Telework Was Slow to Arrive
Employers have long been wary of telework, feeling that it can detract from company culture and decrease productivity, as discussed, for instance, in a More recently, cyber security issues have further slowed the embrace of telework.
Nevertheless, polls suggest tremendous receptivity among workers, nationally and globally, for teleworking. In fact, a recent study shows that 75% of American workers would ideally work from home at least one day a week after the shutdown, and 32% claimed they want to work from home every day.
On the employer side, fears of decreased productivity seem misplaced, particularly among a workforce equipped and conversant with technology. The Social Security Administration’s backlog of pending cases” fell by 11% after it instituted widespread telework on March 23, according to a May 5 National Public Radio story, which also cites small-scale studies showing increased productivity.
Teleworking can also greatly reduce the cost of office space, particularly in our stressed and expensive urban cores. A Trends Magazine article estimated that U.S. businesses could save $60 billion on rent annually if half of office workers moved to full-time telework. That office space could then be repurposed as residential units, alleviating the housing crisis.
Telework can also reduce the spread of illness. A study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases about respiratory illness in the 2017-2018 influenza season showed that policies such as telework keep sick employees out of the office, reducing the spread of disease, a particularly relevant finding in the midst of the coronavirus.
One Couple’s Account is a Window Into the Local Experience
To put a human face on teleworking, and glean some insights, I interviewed a couple, Debbie and Dan, both of whom live in Arlington and commute to DC, where they work as paralegals. Prior to the pandemic, they had commuted, usually together, by a combination of walking, bus, and Metrorail, fairly typical for Arlington residents. Both Dan and Debbie found the commute reasonable. “I found that there was a certain amount of walking and exercise associated with it,” said Dan. “It didn’t seem burdensome to me at all.”
Both pronounced themselves satisfied with their pre-Covid commute, which matches the survey’s results, in which 64% of Arlington residents rated their commute as either satisfying or very satisfying, versus a 50% regional rating. It seems that a diverse commute, in combination with proximity to work, increases satisfaction compared to those who drive alone. Indeed, the regional report gave only a 29% satisfaction rate for commuters who drove alone, versus 49% of train riders and a surprising 52% of bus riders. It is true that Arlington residents commuted an average of only 7.9 miles one way, according to the survey, likely boosting satisfaction levels.
The pandemic changed everything. Debbie went from zero work-at-home to full-time teleworker instantaneously. Her previous experience had been limited to “extreme deadlines” when on vacation or when sick. Dan had done a bit of informal telework, but “it was not something my firm encouraged.”
Home conditions were not ideal. Dan’s daughter had returned home for a spell after college and they also took in a friend who was otherwise living out of her car. The family room was converted to a work room, while Dan occasionally uses a large closet for calls and meetings. Debbie does the same with their bedroom. A home not meant to be an office was converted to a serviceable one, although not ideal.
Work life hasn’t drastically altered. Debbie maintains the same 9 AM to 5:30 PM schedule she had previously, while Dan begins work around 8:30 AM but is a bit more flexible about taking breaks and making up for them by working at odd times. Indeed, he sees his daily walks to a nearby, tree-laden park as one of the great benefits of working from home that help keep him sane.
Fortunately, the couple already had a number of office supplies in their house. However, Debbie does need to spend money on paper and ink cartridges, since she prefers to print out documents that she edits.
Overall, the two save enough money on the commute—even despite the employer subsidy, for Debbie about $100 a month—that it more than pays additional office supply costs. Dan particularly lauds “the grooming and dressing requirements of working at home,” since he can skimp on the shaving, showering, and clothing.
Both find the greatest benefit of telecommuting to be the time saved, about an hour and half daily. This is less of a sacrifice than for their colleagues, some of whom had a three-hour commute both ways. Nevertheless, now that they are used to working from home, Dan at least prefers it.
While employers have long worried that teleworking will undermine employee cohesion and loyalty, “I actually have more practical contact and work-related conversations . . . than I did when we were all working in the same office,” said Dan. His firm has ensured daily teleconferences in which he is in contact with at least two of the lawyers. In his office, he had often felt isolated in his own little room, while Debbie had been more centrally located, in contact with her colleagues. Now, however, she feels “less integrated” into her office and must make extra efforts to contact people. The lesson here seems to be that telecommuting is more successful if employers have a thoughtful plan from day one to use technology to keep employees fully connected.
What of the Future?
Debbie and Dan’s contrary situations may be the main reason why they diverge radically in what they hope their work conditions will be once the pandemic is fully over. Indeed, they are mirror images. Dan would be happy with four or even five days telecommuting, while Debbie hopes to be back in the office at least four days a week. “But for the commute, I would pick the live office hands down,” she exclaimed.
A challenge that transit agencies across the world will need to combat is the interim period where office work has returned but the virus is not yet eradicated. Debbie plans to drive to her office, rather than taking transit, as she does not feel safe on a bus or train. Dan, similarly, expressed a “fear of sickness and death” on public transit, which points to a challenge for planners both in making transit safe as we come out of the pandemic and in educating and encouraging customers to return to transit. In an effort to alleviate these fears, ART has released a video of the cleaning measures they are taking each day to ensure safety for passengers and employees, while WMATA announced the distribution of 500,000 masks to anyone who may need one to ride.Another issue that Debbie points to with telecommuting is the need to pay taxes in multiple states. “Something would have to be worked out for employers to deal with tax ramifications of having people telecommunicate,” she said. Working out this issue to encourage the many benefits of telecommuting will cross jurisdictions and levels of government.
While the pandemic crisis has revealed the advantages of telework, to fully achieve its promise, access to technology must be broadened. Tracy Hadden Loh and Lara Fishbone pointed out, “Nearly 10% of working-age adults do not have a home broadband connection.” This is yet another area that government will have to work on to ensure a future with telework for all—and to ensure education equity, among other issues.
Despite such obstacles, Dan sees a drastic change in attitudes toward telecommuting. “I feel like this experience really has changed the way my firm looks at telecommuting. I think the firm feels there are efficiencies in this method, they feel like there are cost savings, as long as people are productive and well motivated.” The latent desire among employees for telecommuting opportunities may now match employers’ perceptions of their benefits.
Teleworking had been on the horizon—albeit, at times, a distant horizon—since at least the 1970s, when a NASA engineer “envisaged ‘teleworking’ from local work centres,” according to The Spectator. This dream deferred has now occurred and it seems likely to change the nature of work forever.