While most of the last year can go jump in a lake, the COVID era has given us at least one gift: a real-life experiment on the benefits of remote work.

Remote work is one tool for reducing emissions from transportation, a sector that contributes roughly 54 percent of Maine’s total emissions. Dreamstime/TNS

With vaccinations on the rise, employers are now weighing whether to reopen offices. They shouldn’t forget what we’ve learned.

For most, working from home was an adjustment at first. But as the months went on, it became clear that most office work can be done efficiently and effectively from home, while leaving employees more satisfied with their jobs.

It also made them healthier. Not only have long commuting times been linked to early death, but the carbon dioxide emissions from so much car traffic is polluting the air and killing the planet.

Remote work is one tool for reducing emissions from transportation, a sector that contributes roughly 54 percent of the state’s total emissions.

And this year, it worked. When the pandemic hit, about 85 percent of the non-public safety state government workforce began working from home. From April through November, those employees drove 1.1 million fewer miles a week.

While state workers represent only a small portion of the workforce, their experience is an indicator of the effect remote work can have on emissions if it remains widely in use. Nationwide, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fell nearly 15 percent last year, in large part because people drove less.

And while other initiatives to reduce transportation emissions – such as encouraging the use of electric vehicles and mass transit – are necessary, they are much more costly and challenging than simply allowing employees to work from home.

Whether it’s because of the benefits to climate change, the happy loss of a commute, or the comforts of home, employees overwhelmingly say they want this part of the pandemic to continue post-COVID.

A survey of 7,000 state employees last May found that 82 percent were satisfied with their remote work situation, and that only 5 percent wanted to return to workplace full-time.

A more recent study, by Live + Work Maine, found that more than 4 in 5 Mainers responding intended to work remotely at least some of the time in the future.

Employers should take these findings to heart. The pandemic showed us that most workers don’t have to be tied to a desk to get things done, and if you give them a little freedom, you’ll get more satisfied and productive employees in return.

If enough employers listen, then we’ll get cleaner air, too, and take a big step toward eliminating carbon emissions.


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