Prolonged lockdowns around the world have contributed to halt the spread of COVID-19, but now it is becoming clear that the economic pain they entail is too big for countries to reintroduce them. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on June 8 that a spike in cases would trigger renewed restrictions on economic activity. However, even though the coronavirus keeps on spreading in growing numbers, businesses continue to reopen. Even autocratic governments like China may not be able to muster the political will to reintroduce expansive and long-term lockdowns.
The alternative path to balance economic re-opening and the containment of the virus includes wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining physical distance at all times. It also involves maintaining as little physical contact as possible between individuals by sticking to remote work and by normalizing it. Indeed, a worker at home neither gets infected nor infects others.
Whether in the private sector or in some government bureaucracies, a reduction of physical encounters would mean less prospects for COVID-19 to spread. Yet there are long-term outcomes to consider as well. Institutionalizing remote work would allow transforming urban space, with far-reaching benefits for our health, society and the economy.
Currently, workers commuting to their offices in vehicles risk showing up late to meetings, getting into accidents or becoming depressed and exhausted in endless traffic jams. One calculation shows that Israelis spend about 200 hours in traffic jams every year, in a country that ranks #1 among OECD countries in traffic congestion and number of vehicles per square kilometer.
Instead of burning precious hours and fossil fuels every day on the way to an office, remote work allows spending that time with loved ones, sleeping more, eating better, and developing hobbies. Instead of buying fuel from oil-producing kleptocracies, money saved can be used to purchase goods and services from small local businesses.
During the coronavirus lockdowns, air pollution levels in cities around the world have dropped sharply and rapidly. In Madrid, for example, the average level of nitrogen dioxide recorded on March 17 was almost 75% lower than the previous week, and in Barcelona it fell by more than 45%, according to Greenpeace.
The World Health Organization maintains that air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases (about three times the global death toll of car accidents). More than 2,500 of those occur in Israel. Such cuts in emissions of pollutants are also essential for governments to meet their commitments in the framework of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Beyond improving our health, normalizing remote work can help reduce the inequalities between large overpopulated cities and the rest of the country. As more high-income jobs can be performed from anywhere, young couples will be able to afford to live anywhere outside of metropolitan areas. In the suburban and rural areas, they could more easily afford to buy an apartment and enjoy a calmer lifestyle. Local authorities could then enjoy a significant growth in resources through contributions by highly skilled workers who would migrate from the big cities.
THE BENEFITS of moving to remote work are significant for businesses’ bottom line as well. The development of shared workspaces through companies like WeWork and the digital revolution more broadly are enabling businesses to ditch their exclusive office spaces and rent ad-hoc meeting spaces, saving a large portion of their overhead costs. Certainly, businesses could also become more efficient by saving much of their workers’ travel costs.
Global costs of air pollution are estimated to be $2.9 trillion a year (or $8 billion a day), according to another collaborative Greenpeace report. A cautious estimate by the Finance Ministry maintains that the Israeli market loses at least NIS 35 billion NIS (approximately $10.2b.) as a result of using private vehicles.
With so many benefits for Israel to be found in remote work, it is surprising that only about 4% of its population was engaged in such work in 2018, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics, while in the USA, pre-coronavirus rates stood at around 5%.
A key challenge is that governments are the largest single employer in many countries, but are averse to rapid changes. They may be particularly suspicious about alternative ways of working that shift away from the panopticon-like scrutiny currently used over workers in offices. During COVID-19, some government workers were simply put on leave (paid or unpaid), while some civil servants began being compensated for remote work. Ministers should further support and incentivize that trend and consider the difficulties it entails for both managers and workers.
Furthermore, some private sector and government services cannot and should not be done remotely. Humans are social animals, and many of us, even when our jobs could be done entirely from home, would still benefit from physical meetings with colleagues. But these need not be done on a daily basis. A weekly or monthly face-to-face meeting may just be enough to gain the “chemistry of the unexpected” that is lost in Skype or Zoom meetings, (The Economist cites designer Thomas Heatherwick in reminding us that the office only dates back to the 19th century).
Finally, the direct losers from a shift to remote work would be large businesses like the oil industry, which reaps profits from workers commuting to offices every day. The decentralization of work would also hurt big, strong municipal authorities, which currently host the most lucrative office spaces. They are some of the actors who would fight to undermine the necessary shift. But a global pandemic can help undermine the interests of the old guard.
The transition of the economy to a maximum degree of remote work must be rapid and dramatic to catch up with the spread of COVID-19. If the pandemic madness gives a new level of urgency to normalize remote work, that would also let us tackle some of our greatest long-term problems.
The writer is the international communications coordinator for Greenpeace Africa. Twitter @talharris1. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Greenpeace.