KILL THE COMMUTE

There is another way for Delhi to curb its dangerous pollution levels

Quartz india
Quartz india

After a week on the road, the Arvind Kejriwal government’s odd-even car rationing experiment has received a green light from the Delhi high court to continue up to Jan. 15.

So far, with odd and even-numbered cars plying on Delhi roads on alternate days, the traffic congestion in the national capital has seemingly reduced—but pollution hasn’t.

In light of this, there’s something else that Delhi’s public and private establishments could explore to tackle the city’s deadly air quality: telecommuting. That is, allow employees to work from home or an alternate location instead of travelling into an office daily.

For decades now, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been pushing telecommuting—or telework, as it is also known—as an option to cut down on vehicular pollution. “Telecommuting is seen by many as an important tool in managing demand for transportation. In addition to lower congestion and less air pollution, potential benefits could include reduced national petroleum use, fewer highway accidents, and eased transportation infrastructure requirements,” the EPA reported as far back as 1992. “Telecommuting can also expand opportunities for people with impaired mobility or tied to the home for any other reason.”

In fact, in a legislation passed in 2001 (pdf), the US federal government even ordered its executive departments to establish a policy for its workers to “participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance.”

The same year, the US Department of Transportation also introduced a pilot tax credit programme in select states, for companies that allow employees to telecommute.

That initiative “may prompt enterprises to revisit the other benefits of telework, including the attraction and retention of employees, workplace flexibility, reduced costs for facilities, and higher productivity with lower commuting times,” market research firm Gartner had said in a note.

There is some research that links the impact of working remotely with both traffic and air quality. In a 2013 research thesis by Jennifer Marie Piozet of the San Jose State University, she explained:

Telecommuting can reduce automobile vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and therefore directly reduce air pollution. According to Grantham and Paul (1995), telecommuting in California resulted in an increase of employee productivity by 16% and a decrease of VMT by 20-40% during multiple studies from 1990 to 1992 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2008, an independent study by Kate Lister and Tom Harnish argued that if 40% of all jobs in the US shifted to telecommuting, it could potentially “save 625 million barrels of oil, reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 107 million tons of CO2, and save almost $43 billion at the pumps.”

Of course, the kind of industry matters. Factory-based or labour-intensive jobs that need the physical presence of workers can’t exactly benefit. However, a variety of functions in information technology and services field can be tackled from a remote location. In Delhi, industries that “dominate employment” (pdf) are trade, hotels and restaurants, manufacturing, public administration, health, and finance

Improved productivity

It’s not just the environment. Even companies can benefit out of more productive—and efficient—workers.

“Working from home can allow employees to minimise distractions and complete their projects faster with fewer mistakes. It may also help in reducing absenteeism, and in the long run, lead to cost savings,” S Venkatesh, president of group human resources and a management board member of the RPG Enterprises, told Quartz.

“Also, given the long hours one spends on commuting to and from work, this is a viable solution to my mind,” he added.

A 2014 study by Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom noted that productivity—measured as work over time—increased 22% when the telecommuting option was made available to employees.

“One-third of the productivity increase, we think, was due to having a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls. At home people don’t experience what we call the “cake in the break room” effect,” Bloom told the Harvard Business Review.

Moreover Cisco, the American networking behemoth, saved $277 million a year just by allowing its employees to work from home.

“Research does suggest that work-from-home options enhance job-related attitudes, such as job satisfaction, and organisational identification. Empirical research does suggest that attitudes such as job engagement and job satisfaction make for more productive employees,” Ritu Tripathi, a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, told Quartz.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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