Unintended consequence of Covid-19: working from home (WFH) a good and achievable idea after all

4 May 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Professor David Hensher suggests that post-COVID-19, employers could be more amenable to staff working from home, resulting in significant improvements to traffic congestion and the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions.

Covid-19 may have broken the resistance of many employers to working from home. The idea that working from home through telecommuting or a nine day fortnight, referred to as distributed work practices, has been suggested for many years. Indeed earlier research on finding ways to reduce enhanced greenhouse emissions, essentially CO2 in the transport sector, suggested that the two main ways of achieving this, in the absence of road pricing reform, was to improve the fuel efficiency of cars (reduced emission per kilometre) and to introduce distributed work practices.

Efforts to improve public transport within the financial constraints of government have not proven to be a panacea in making a significant difference to traffic congestion. We now have first-hand evidence - a real market test, admittedly under severe restrictions - that working from home works much more than many employers, and indeed many employees, had thought. So the evidence is in, and although we do not expect such a high incidence of working from home when restrictions are lifted, we now have a real opportunity to promote an increased amount of working from home to achieve a number of other societal challenges.

One of the greatest impacts has been on traffic congestion, although we recognise that it has resulted in a significant drop in public transport use and some trips normally by public transport are undertaken by car given the growing importance of bio security on one’s health risk. When the restrictions are fully relaxed, if we could obtain at least one day a week working from home, spread equally over the five working days (or reasonably equally to avoid a dominance of Friday or Monday to give long weekends), then we can improve the travel times on the roads significantly, and this will have a greater impact on traffic congestion, especially in the peak periods, than simply construction of new roads or changing the physical capacity of existing roads through transport management interventions.

I suggest that this may be politically more palatable than road pricing reform, which remains a challenge. There is no reason now to not take advantage of this ‘new normal’ to contain congestion growth, and indeed, if we can reduce car traffic each day by about 10 percent, we should eliminate the worst of congestion, returning all times of the years to levels of traffic experienced in school holidays which is usually very acceptable to the travelling public. We could even do better than 10 percent.

This is an opportunity not to be foregone by industry and government, offering a real opportunity for employers to show a commitment to sustainable goals, something many aspire to and very few ever get close to achieving. With the field test complete, let us use this to benefit climate change, wellbeing and infrastructure priority funding, enabling a greater amount of funding directed to essential services such as health services and care support.