Increased productivity from home and breaths of fresh air have marked pandemic lockdowns for some
  • As the economy gears up, some will remain working from home. 
  • Teleworking is a strategic business initiative and could help fight climate change, experts say. 
  • Now that telecommuting has been embraced, it’s here to stay.

With countries around the world and some American states allowing offices, stores and restaurants to reopen, experts say the embrace of teleworking and the lessons in improving air quality will linger long after the lockdowns end.

“We are in teleworking 2.0,” Debra A. Dinnocenzo, founder and president of training and consulting firm VirtualWorks!, told Karma. “As the result of circumstances, we are rebooting and recognizing that working-from-home is a strategic business initiative and not a perk for employees. We will remain virtual as much as possible in the future.”

Boston Consulting Group estimates that 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide could continue doing their jobs from their homes. Research company Gartner Inc. reported that the CFOs they surveyed said that to protect their workers they planned on bringing back customer-facing employees last, “if at all.” And 74% said that they intend to shift 5% of their staff to permanent teleworking status as a cost-saving measure and to avoid layoffs.

Dinnocenzo, who has been writing about teleworking for nearly two decades, believes that it’s simply not safe for workers to return to offices until testing is more widespread or an effective vaccine is available and companies are able to offer their staff adequate protection in the workplace.

The work-from-home measures imposed by governments to lower infection rates and death tolls from COVID-19 have left offices empty and factories stilled. Worldwide, more than 4 million cases of the disease have been reported and 240,000 people have died.

According to the New York Times, most white-collar workers have been working from home for weeks, leaving shared spaces, like WeWork offices, empty. And it’s not clear when or if that will change. WeWork declined to respond to Karma’s request for an interview. However, the company did issue a plan last month of how its shared office spaces would operate post-pandemic, including reduced capacity in common areas and offices with desks far enough apart for social distancing.

Without all that commuting, in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, many highly polluted areas across the globe, particularly cities and industrial areas, have seen cleaner air return. However, post-lockdown, that new normal of clearer air will likely go back to the old normal of polluted air, say experts.

“Unfortunately, in places like Wuhan [China], once the lockdown ended, the air pollution has approached what it was before,” Rob McDonald, lead scientist, global cities, at the Nature Conservancy, told Karma. “[The air pollution goes up] although not 100%.”

Yet, McDonald maintains that a lesson about air pollution in cities has been re-learned in the era of COVID-19. He said a decade ago, the Chinese government spearheaded a successful plan to clean up the air for the Olympics in Beijing. Once the games concluded, he said, the measures were abandoned and air pollution levels rose again.

“Big swings are possible if governments get behind them,” added McDonald.

He also noted that air in U.S. cities is considerably cleaner than it was 20 years ago, thanks to laws restricting auto emissions and pollution from industries.

Nonetheless, throughout the world, air pollution is a major killer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, 91% of the population was living in places, both urban and rural, where their health was compromised by dirty air, resulting in more than 4 million premature deaths. Some of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest number in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions.

“Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient homes, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution,” according to WHO. “In addition to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke is a serious health risk for some 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes with biomass, kerosene fuels and coal.”