In summary

COVID-19 has produced a seismic shift in thinking about working from home and healthier lifestyles, while seeing a stunning impact on our air quality.

By Dean Florez, Special to CalMatters


Dean Florez served in the Assembly and state Senate from 1998-2010 and is a member of the California Air Resources Board, 
senatordeanflorez@yahoo.com.

The COVID-19 shelter in place orders have demonstrated that many of us can work successfully from home and adopt healthier lifestyles. In the past three months, we have reduced traffic on our streets and highways, and more people are teleworking. 

For decades, there has been a push to get cars off the road by encouraging more carpooling, bike riding and the use of public transportation. But those efforts didn’t produce the seismic shift in thinking about how we work until COVID-19 forced many of us to work from home, nor did they produce the stunning impact on our air quality

We can leave office culture behind and embrace a healthier future of work. 

At the peak of the COVID-19 induced shutdowns in April, the daily carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 17% globally, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. In our state since the start of the pandemic, California Air Resources Board estimates that the vehicle miles traveled for light/medium duty vehicles was reduced by as much as 70%-80%, but vehicle miles traveled is already beginning to climb as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

For the Southern California region, an employee drives an average of 21.3 miles on a weekday. If an employee in Southern California were able to work from home three days per week, that worker would travel 63.9 fewer vehicle miles per week. This means that workers buy less gas, save time from grinding commutes and help reduce air pollution. Time saved means that employees can get more rest and exercise. They can also keep an eye on what’s going on in their neighborhoods, creating safer streets for their families and friends.   

The time it takes to get to work plus the associated travel costs have been increasing in recent years, even as transportation agencies have promoted public transportation and ridesharing. At the same time, there have been advances in technology that make teleworking easier. 

Office space in our state is costly. In Los Angeles, the average yearly cost to rent office space per employee was more than $6,000, and in San Francisco, it was more than $14,000. Companies can save money by not renting as much office space and instead invest in their businesses and workers. 

Not going to the office all the time also means that businesses can save on heating, cooling and other energy costs, and employees can save money on their wardrobe and drycleaning. Teleworking has environmental impacts beyond the reduced emissions with vehicular travel. 

Leaders in California and beyond are already thinking of ways to encourage telecommuting to continue. At the state level, the Air Resources Board upon which I sit, can flex its enormous power on air pollution to change the work week. Businesses should be incentivized to continue encouraging teleworking for their employees even as restrictions on shelter in place ease. The Air Resources Board can help make this shift in work culture happen with the money that industries pay to pollute by buying allowances in a carbon-trading market. 

Policymakers can also consider carrots and sticks to promote teleworking. Some options include telecommuting tax credits for employers and employees, penalties for businesses that don’t offer teleworking options for its employees such as parking lot taxes, and incentives to improve local broadband networks in our rural communities. 

We don’t have to return to the car-centric, office culture. The future of work can be healthier for everyone if leaders promote teleworking as effective and environmentally sound. 

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.