In the past week, as concerns over Covid-19 have mounted and authorities encouraged “social distancing” to prevent possible transmission, many companies and organisations around the world have moved to encourage some or all of their employees to work remotely.
It’s about time.
Large technology companies were among the first to initiate such alternate arrangements. At the week's start, Google told all its North American workers – including those at its enormous headquarters in Silicon Valley – to work from home, if possible.
In Ireland, even before that, both Google last week and Apple this week had shifted thousands of employees to remote work after each company had an employee self-isolate due to coronavirus.
Universities, from Trinity College Dublin here to Harvard and Stanford in the US, have cancelled in-class general lectures and switched to online broadcasting of at least some classes. Smaller companies and organisations everywhere are also moving to online meetings or group phone calls.
Everyone's quality of life will improve without the daily drudge of a long commute, and not just because of the personal time recovered for workers
The technology to do this – such as Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Slack, Stream, Hangouts – is easily available, and generally free, at least for the basic features that are all most of us require. Or they’re inexpensive (a year’s subscription to Slack for an individual is about the cost a person would pay for fuel or public transport to a workplace for a month).
And many of these tools are provided by the very companies – Google, Apple, Microsoft – that are now discovering large-scale remote working for themselves, using their own tools, after years of flogging them to everyone else.
Oh, I know these companies have also used them internally, but never at such scale. And the question being asked widely, on social media and in comments below the media articles about these new remote-working initiatives, is why has it taken a pandemic to spur forward such obvious, sensible steps?
And why not, say, a climate crisis that would be helped enormously by fewer car journeys and flights, and by reducing the need for heated or air-conditioned buildings?
Let them eat dogfood
Nor have the companies been willing to, as the saying goes, “eat their own dogfood” – to use these technologies at scale, to address the overwhelming housing or commuting problems they themselves contribute to in the urban areas they occupy.
Why do Google’s or Facebook’s or other big tech companies’ thousands of workers need to all gather at the same time in the same place in city centres or suburbs, when most will spend the day sitting in a cubicle, on their computers, messaging the person across the room rather than walking over to have a discussion? When any needed conversations or group meetings could as easily take place while working remotely?
Why should these companies end up with a sideline in property portfolios, instead of doing their core business, using their technologies? Why should housing developers be allowed to then flood the city with high-end developments targeting those higher-paid employees working in those centralised “campuses”?
Why should that be the unwanted “solution” to a commuting crisis, alongside projects such as BusConnects, which will blast road-widening, traffic-expanding schemes through the places others live in order to make more room for the cars to drive into city car parks without the irritating impediment of repeatedly slowing or stopping behind buses collecting passengers, or cyclists?
Remote working – as part of long-term corporate strategy, not just a short-term reaction to a pandemic, will enable more people to live in lower-cost regions, helping satellite towns and rural areas to grow and thrive. Everyone’s quality of life will improve without the daily drudge of a long commute, and not just because of the personal time recovered for workers. China’s experience during this health crisis has shown that air pollution levels drop dramatically once commutes and flight volumes tail off.
For universities, the ongoing problem of limited space and overcrowding could be eased, and class offerings and enrolments could expand, if each class didn’t always require an individual room or lecture hall for every lecture.
Of course, remote working or studying in the future doesn’t have to mean everybody goes remote, every single day. There are many good work and social reasons for people to meet in person, with colleagues, fellow students, lecturers, industry contacts.
And there are some notable caveats that could create unwanted (and more worryingly, perhaps socially invisible) exclusion. These include inadequate broadband in many areas, especially rural regions; lack of access to the internet or basic computing hardware needed due to social exclusion; an unaddressed divide between part-time and full-time worker entitlements and supports, even within the big tech companies; and the risk of increasing isolation for people who have difficulties with, or cannot afford or use these technologies.
But overall, going remote is such an obvious and timely, life- and work-enhancing way forward for both individuals and broader society. Let’s hope it’s here to stay.