background image

Remote-forward work is the future, but not for the reasons you might think

author image

By Sara Murdock

· 7 min read

Commuting is contributing to several preventable crises – climate change, public health issues, economic disinclusion, gender inequity, and more. Even for companies that don’t care from an ethics perspective, it will pay to care financially and reputationally due to rises in data reporting and stakeholder expectations. 

The debate about remote work “versus” in person work tends to focus on employer/employee power dynamics or assumptions about what creates robust company culture. I cover those topics in other articles, so this piece is about seeing how our employees' behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our objective is not to promote remote work and argue against in person work. Instead, our goal is to blur the lines between social and environmental strategies. When we put employees in one box, climate in another, health in another, and so on, we tend to waste resources and miss solutions – in an interrelated world, we need integrated strategies. 

Let’s start with the relationship between commuting and environmental damage, then move to public health, and finally to economic inclusion. 

Some of our employees want to work out of our offices. Why do we have to complicate that?

Carbon emissions and commuting go hand in hand. While some forms of transport are necessary, getting to an office desk to sit on Zoom is not. With scoped emissions tracking on the rise, our companies are often required to daylight our entire organizational footprints, which include the carbon implications of our employees’ vehicles, plus our office/facility sites. No one is immune. Even for smaller and mid-sized companies, prospective clients and customers will seek to exclusively do business with vendors who fit into ESG and other impact frameworks. Our company’s carbon footprint could be a problem in someone else’s supply chain. 

Reporting on our carbon footprint has different requirements in different settings, depending who’s asking. General consumers elect to buy from companies that are being truly and verifiably conscientious, though discerning whose claims are legitimate and whose claims are for marketing purposes is a whole other article. Governing bodies, in particular, are demanding increasingly meticulous data and substantive proof. Many of us will be faced with rigorous audits and carbon accounting in order to avoid fines and be approved as an acceptable vendor. Even if our company tries to pull an Oprah and spring for a new electric vehicle for every new hire (that would be an interesting sign-on bonus), the environmental implications of EV charging won’t save us. 

Can’t we simply buy carbon offsets to zero out our footprint? 

Carbon is just the obvious start to understanding commute costs. Unfortunately, the public health implications of cars on the road are just as serious as carbon and harder to “offset.” Poor air quality is a direct contributor not only to chronic pulmonary ailments like asthma, but also to lethal diseases like cardiovascular and cancer. Air pollution is caused by many factors, but with a public health crisis this bad, it’s inane to squabble over which contributors are the most culpable, and road transport is definitely part of the issue

The health risks of commuting are both immediate and delayed. On an individual level, the health implications of commuting differ depending on whether you’re in the car or on public transport. From COVID to the common cold, public transport is simply a no fly zone for many people with compromised immune systems, which are also more likely to be employees with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Car time, on the other hand, is associated with a bevy of issues regardless of socio economics, from poor mental health to obesity. Commuting isn’t benign “in between” time, and is actually a direct contributor to myriad health concerns. 

Our company can’t be responsible for every public health crisis. Can’t we have people commute to the office without this being a larger social issue?

We’ve known for years that living close to freeways is a social determinant of health due to air quality issues. Now we also know that long commutes are a social determinant of health no matter where we live. In North America, commuting became a part of the social imaginary alongside car culture, white picket fences, and suburbia. Going to and from work seemed as inevitable as the ebb and flow of the tide. The environmental and physiological health implications we’ve already covered are the obvious effects, but time and relationship costs can be more insidious and quite expensive as well. 

The time costs of commuting are related to health, though less immediately. The time tax of commuting robs our employees of the activities that lead to health and quality of life (and, incidentally, peak work performance). Time is a non-negotiable ingredient in exercise, sleep, meditation, healthy eating, and healthy relationships. Of course we can’t mandate that our employees live healthy lives, but we can equip them with the single most important resource to do so – time. It doesn’t matter if we’re subsidizing gym memberships and paying people enough to shop at Whole Foods if we don’t have time to get to that yoga class and we’re eating meals at our desks.

We can think of commute time as a larger social issue, or we can simply look at it in relation to the health of our teams. Whether for auditors or for brand reputation, we are responsible for identifying and mitigating our contributions to health crises. Some of this is related to increasingly sophisticated impact reporting for 3rd parties and some of it is related to being a brand people want to work for. 

OK, the health implications are easy to identify. What does this have to do with gender and social equity in general, let alone at our company?  

Minimizing commute time is a hidden factor in gender equity. Women have less agency than men around our own time, so freeing up commute time makes it more likely we can be a gender inclusive workplace. If we’re serious about gender inclusion, time is not an optional resource to offer. The goal isn’t to single-handedly change the course of gender dynamics, but our companies suffer when we fail to be active participants of social inclusion practices. Whether we enjoy facing the facts about gender inclusion or not, at the organizational level we are accountable for understanding and addressing them. 

Beyond time, the cost of commuting is also related to cash resources. As transport prices rise, employees earning the least often have to commute the farthest, which means our lowest earners pay the most in both time and money. When we normalize remote-forward work we’re helping to wipe out socio-economic stigmas and increase the likelihood that women (as well as people of color, single parents, and people with disabilities) will be able to afford to work for us. One option is to pay for commute time. This is clearly a direct answer to the most immediate costs and is better than nothing, but doesn’t account for any of the gender, health, carbon, or environmental factors. The humble daily commute is effectively an avoidable social equity concern hiding in plain sight. 

The bottom line is that all “daily” commute expenditures - time, money, fuel - are resource hogs. One of the key confusions stems from an out-dated tax paradigm (at least in the USA): the Internal Revenue Service classifies commuting as separate from “discretionary” travel. This classification reinvigorates the idea that commuting is an inevitable part of life for all workers and gives the impression that hauling between where we live and where we work is a “built in” part of being in businesses. Even if the tax man has another opinion, from a science standpoint, commuting is discretionary travel for knowledge workers. When we treat it as such, our strategies are stronger and our risk is minimized. 

What’s next and how can we be prepared?

There are many great reasons to meet in person and work face to face. Our task, if we want to be strategic (and if we want to avoid penalties), is to consider the larger cost/benefit implications of how we're working from a highly integrated perspective that overlaps topics we used to consider separate (such as people and planet). For example, our teams need interaction, but we also need clean air and time to play with our kids. Being prepared for the future of work means designing our organizations from the perspective of climate as much as from the perspective of people. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Dr. Sara Murdock, a cultural futurist and organizational anthropologist, conducts research, writes, and develops projects bridging social science and social imaginary. With over two decades of experience in real-world applications, she's an award-winning strategist and advisor for boards, C-execs, and think tanks. Currently, she serves as the Futurist in Residence for Tech startup Eqogo, Founder of the How We Look project, and a soon-to-be-announced research Fellowship. 

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)