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Work from home (WFH) vs in-office has been continuously debated since the start of the pandemic. Some articles report better productivity with WFH. Others report the opposite. Setting aside the endless productivity debate, secondary effects of WFH appear generally positive. Note than an estimated 37 percent of all US jobs can be done fully remotely (49 million jobs based on 2020 employment levels).

  1. Time savings for employees. The average commute time in the US was 55.2 minutes (2019 data). This is strictly door-to-door time, and does not include other factors such as dressing for work, packing food, setting up a laptop, etc.
  2. Direct cost savings for employees. The median annual transportation cost to commute was $2,226 (2017 data) with average gas prices at $2.41/gal. When factoring in all other direct cost savings of WFH such as child care, lunch, apparel, etc., total savings per employee has been estimated over $4,600 across all expenses.
  3. Ending homelessness. HUD estimated 553,000 average homeless people in the US daily. The unused office space could be used as shelter with minimal conversion effort. HVAC, restrooms, elevators, etc. are already installed. Some companies have begun making these space conversions at smaller scale.
  4. Carbon emissions reduction. This question was brought up in mid 2020 before a full year's worth of pandemic-era data was available. CO2 emissions fell 5.4% in 2020 according to NASA estimates. Some reduction was caused by construction / manufacturing disruptions and other factors. Regardless, reducing US daily commuters by 30+ million individuals in 2020 was obviously beneficial. Air traffic also reduced over 60% in 2020 as a combined result of deferred personal travel and shifting business meetings online.
  5. Reduced traffic for businesses supported by commuters. In many cases one could argue this is actually a positive result. For example, there is an entire industry dedicated to commercial office construction. Is this really a necessary industry? Or a massive waste of resources/emissions to build redundant structures when employees can do the same job from home? In 2019, 38% of global CO2 emissions were generated by building construction and operation. Perhaps construction resources would be better used to ease the housing shortage.

In summary, it would be very refreshing to hear these considerations included by business and government leaders when discussing WFH policies. Tech sector management particularly tends to favor environmental initiatives and political causes. However these concerns seem to disappear immediately from discussion when the topic is return-to-office or hybrid work arrangements. Politicians regularly advocate for carbon-reduction policies. Where is the left-leaning political advocacy for WFH, either based on environmental or pro-worker reasoning? Does it exist and I'm somehow missing the headlines?

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  • Why should the left be interested in saving the environment (more than the right)? Also work from home is not possible for all people, for example nobody can collect the trash from home. Maybe the left sees people working from home not as their primary target audience. This would be more something for the environmentalists/middle class. Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 0:17
  • True, one would hope for all political sides to understand the environmental waste caused by needless in-office commute. I personally hoped the left could be faster to advocate about the issue. Maybe they do recognize the problem, but like you said, it's not their target audience. That is really unfortunate if correct.
    – jrbe228
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 1:00
  • Why is this a political question? WFH is a matter for every business to decide on their own (aside from government's mandatory self-isolation rules). Do you expect it to be regulated?
    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 4:03
  • It's political in a similar way as electric vehicles. In theory EVs are a decision between businesses to manufacture and consumers to buy. No politics involved. But because the government views EVs as environmentally friendly, there are $7500 incentives, billions in research funding towards battery / motor technology, etc. Similar tax incentives could be offered to businesses in support of WFH. At that point, it's a question of how much $ invested per kg of carbon reduction. The same question fundamental to EV incentives or carbon sequestration.
    – jrbe228
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 4:44
  • WFH works, maybe, for knowledge workers, and that maybe is a big maybe. A good number of employers that employ knowledge workers very much want their employees to come back to the office. Many employers experienced a significant productivity drop with the pandemic. Employees got lost trying to solve a problem without adequate support, or maybe burrowed too deep into the technical sandbox. Moreover, knowledge workers have a harder time getting support / mentoring when no one is in the office. Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 4:52

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I think you are not looking the incentives correctly.

hear these considerations included by business and government leaders when discussing WFH policies.

From the PoV of employers, #1 and #2 might facilitate hiring, retention and/or lower wages due to lower cost of living. Against that, while knowledge workers are candidates for WFH, others are not. And many employers resent the loss of control, fret about productivity and have somewhat valid concerns about the loss of the water cooler effect.

#3, 4, 5 are not benefits for businesses, so they don't care.

For local politicians, #3 is a bug, not a feature. You, the soon-to-be-ex mayor, are gonna trade property-tax paying revenue for the costs of providing shelter for free? Do you think the locals are going to support that? What about all the businesses like cafes, bars and restaurants that rely on the business crowd?

#4 and #5 are of limited interests to local politicians as well.

And I would argue, that overall, unless you actually price carbon to where your various items have sufficient actual economic worth, #4 and #5 look good for the country overall, but doesn't reward the losers from this approach. It can't because the negative externalities from emissions were never properly costed to start out with.

It seems very attractive to some knowledge workers, well-represented on online forums. (For myself, while working 10 years in a branch office, I was acutely aware of how much promotion/growth opportunities I was leaving on the table, compared to my more networked peers). For many other workers, this solution is irrelevant to them.

I am not knocking WFH entirely. For one thing, a massive CO2 reduction could come from reducing business travel. And there are some true benefits to what you list. And, at least in some industries like software, WFH allows you to recruit the best talent, globally (which incidentally may not be to the liking of politicians). And some companies can thrive in this environment, by foregoing many costs.

But there seems to be a fairly comprehensive misalignment of incentives in the benefits you cite and the leaders that are supposed to be promoting it. Not that they can't worked around, or that my arguments can't be rebutted, but the picture seems quite a bit more complex than that hypothesized in the question.

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  • On #3, I think local governments are stuck paying either way. California's 2023 budget for homeless initiatives is $3.4 billion or approx $19k / homeless person. Let's assume 100 sq ft / person for shelter space (upgrade over the 64 sq ft sheds they use now). That would be $4600 / year even at Los Angeles office space prices.
    – jrbe228
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 6:27
  • On #4 and 5, I agree with - "unless you actually price carbon to where your various items..." That calculation has already been done for every other initiative. There is a [dollar value per kg carbon removed] associated with $7,500 electric vehicle incentives, business carbon credits, building carbon sequestration, etc. Here is the confusing part for me. Massive government funding and corporate / university research dedicated to carbon reduction. Yet I rarely/never hear WFH mentioned as an alternative, even though it achieves the same goals, and does so quickly, without decades of investment.
    – jrbe228
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 14:15
  • I understand what you're asking and I am saying that a $7500 EV credit means nothing concrete to a downtown barrista that lost their job because you wanted to shut down office jobs (nor should they be sacrificed wo help to achieve national goals). What we can always see in politics is that the people who stand to lose from a policy can more easily apply pressure than the diffuse rest. Another example: ethanol mandates which do very little to reduce CO2 but benefit farmer in the Midwest - a constituency btw, which likely one of the most climate skeptics of US demographic groups). Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 22:20
  • True, every policy creates winners and losers. The EV incentives create losers in engine manufacturing. General WFH would need support plans for some affected jobs. Baristas and the food industry might be one of the easier fixes. We would expect people to consume the same amount of food / drink regardless of location. They would simply buy it closer to home when WFH. Relocating coffee shops near residential areas may solve that specific case. Still I agree it requires planning and resources. That only happens if there is political interest, research, and policy proposal. No interest so far :(
    – jrbe228
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 2:28
  • @JeremyBeale We would expect people to consume the same amount of food / drink regardless of location. Why would you think that? Some who is working from home is more likely drinking plain old drip coffee made at home rather than stopping at a coffee shop on the way to work to buy a tasty cappuccino that they don't even know how to make at home. Someone who is working from home is most likely eating a boring sandwich made at home for lunch, or eating last night's leftovers for lunch. There are economic multipliers that argue against WFH policies. Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 10:42

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