Despite growing calls for a full return to cubicle life post-Labor Day, some see the work-from-home “experiment” outlasting the health emergency that spawned its widespread use.
“[O]ne of the lasting lessons from the [coronavirus] pandemic is that American workers can be productive anywhere, including from home or other locations remote from a central office,” says Gregory Winfree, agency director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Last week, New York joined the list of employers looking to wean workers from remote access, announcing that by July 2 the statewide telecommuting program born of last year’s pandemic lockdown will end, and that a “return to normal operations” is expected by Sept. 7.
In the Big Apple, private employers anticipate 62 percent of Manhattan’s 1 million office workers will be at their desks after Labor Day, according to a survey released this month by the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group. Most will report just three days a week, though.
With rising vaccination rates slowing COVID-19 infections and deaths, the National Press Foundation empaneled transportation experts last week to explore the post-pandemic commute, which naturally included a discussion on the future of telecommuting.
“I think a lot of this is here to stay,” said Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., who participated with Winfree in the webinar.
Winfree, whose Transportation Institute is an agency of the state of Texas and part of the Texas A&M University system, said the pandemic’s effect on congestion was apparent.
He said soon-to-be-released data from his group will show the pandemic reduced traffic delays to levels not seen since 1991.
Puentes noted that research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, which has tracked commuting behavior since the start of the pandemic, shows work patterns will not return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.
While 75 percent of the workforce commuted to work in February 2020, 17 percent worked from home part of the week and almost 8 percent worked exclusively from home, according to the Dallas Fed. A year later, the percentage of people commuting had dropped and those working solely from home rose to about one in four. For 2022, the Dallas Fed foresees some rise in commuting, but still expects the work-from-home shares to “remain elevated,” even as those percentages tilt more toward part-time remote work.
Puentes pointed out that the pandemic created the impression that “everybody’s working from home,” but that was not the case. Who telecommuted was “highly correlated” to income and education levels, he said.
“So when we think about what’s here to stay, when we think about the permanence of all this, we have to be careful not to overemphasize who is benefitting … as we make public policy decision, especially transportation public policy decisions, around what the future of the commute is going to look like.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]