The restrictions on movement designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in large numbers of people working from home. With a consistent finding being that work has been completed with productivity equal to that of the regular workplace for the duration of the pandemic thus far, and that the benefits of working from home (chiefly not having to commute, a more flexible schedule) outweigh the challenges (namely effective collaboration with colleagues and disruptions from family), there is a strong desire for increased levels of work flexibility.
Business sees the benefit that can be harnessed from allowing more flexible work, with many moving towards the adoption of a hybrid work model where staff work a mix of days each week from home and from an office environment, according to a schedule that works best for the employee and/or employer. With a better mix of home and office-based work, offered this hybrid approach it is likely that for many, there will be a significant reduction in the number of commuting trips made per week.
There are, however, darker elements that still need to be resolved when it comes to working from home; gendered effects in particular ranging from unequal distribution of household tasks between females and males to the potential for greater risk of domestic violence while working from home. From a transport perspective, working from home has the potential to entrench the car as the norm when engaging in commuting.
We see that public transport use remains suppressed (the key ingredient in a rebound in use, aside from the effectiveness of the vaccine, could ironically reduce number of passengers and thus lower levels of crowding making the mode a more attractive proposition when people do need to commute) but car use has all but returned to 2019 levels: a rapid rebound also observed in 2020 when restrictions were eased. Typically the more expensive option, the car might become an even more popular for commuters if people are using money saved from not commuting to spend on the trips when they do.
This could be problematic from a road congestion perspective, but perhaps more pressingly from a health perspective. Policy makers have long been trying to increase the attractiveness of active travel, given the significant health benefits that arise if people simply move more. A large part of this has been allied with increasing the use of public transport as part of a more sustainable set of travel patterns. Increased working from home could potentially undermine gains in active travel by strengthening the attractiveness of the car and with people leaving the house less for work, potentially reducing the opportunity for people to be active as part of their travel to work.
A potential for reduced active travel could also be compounded by increased sedentary behaviour that might also arise with working from home. There is litany of evidence that points to the detrimental health consequences of sedentary behaviour. In a recent work currently being completed have found that the amount of time spent sitting by those working from home during the pandemic is high. However, those people who made a conscious effort to increase physical activity report lower relative levels of stress and anxiousness. Unfortunately, this group of people is relatively small. A much larger group has been identified, who are not only sitting longer, but have relatively less physical activity, and report worse levels of stress, anxiety, and a lower quality of life.
Rather than reject active travel in the context of working from home, it could be argued that working from home provides an opportunity to reframe active travel choices, and potentially embed them as a habitual part of the experience. Something that is important now more than ever given that more work from home could lead to more sitting.
Innovative organisations see the danger in this, but also the value of healthier staff. I am aware of several businesses that run ongoing competitions designed to encourage staff to be active. These initiatives should be encouraged and there should be research to identify which interventions work best: the physical and social nature of the workplace is an important moderator of active travel choices. The transport community needs to act as swiftly as possible to capitalise on this momentum. The built environment is a crucial facilitator to active travel choices and a radical rethink about suburban based infrastructure investment may be needed.
Recent research indicates that 60-75 minutes per day of moderate physical activity seems to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time, aligning well with the chestnut that is, Marchetti’s Constant. More new research has found that a more achievable step-count of 7000 per day could lead to a 60% lower risk of early death from any cause. Just 120 total minutes outside in nature over the space of a week has significant benefits.
Rather than the 3 metre walk from the bedroom or kitchen to begin the work day from home, we could encourage people to still engage in an active “commute”: starting the day by walking from home to the local railway station, the closest bus stop, and back again to “work”; and finishing the day by walking from “work” back home in the same way. This can also have the added benefit of creating a clear distinction between when someone is at work and when someone is at home.
People can still walk up the street (and back to the kitchen) for lunch and for those inclined to drink coffee, to the neighbourhood café. Why couldn’t a business reward their employ with a coffee from their local café if they walk for it? With the right approach, gamification could potentially lead to positive outcomes if systematically implemented by workplaces or policy makers.
While home has always been where the heart is, it is now the home of work as well, so here lies the rub. Rather than being a potential detriment to active travel, working from home should be seen as a possible boon. Given that the significant benefits of active travel may well be found in locations as close as our local neighbourhood, we should be doing all we can to encourage people to continue to walk to work from home before working from home becomes an issue for our hearts.