Guest Commentary: Traffic, fuel prices, safety might factor into return to work

With COVID-19 vaccines widely dispensed and masking requirements mostly lifted, will “work from home” end? Will workers return to downtown offices at pre-pandemic levels?

Probably not. One big reason is it’s expensive to drive and a waste of time and fuel idling in traffic jams. Another is safety.

Gas prices continue to skyrocket. Last year, the average cost at the pump was $2.62 per gallon. By the end of March, Seattle’s gasoline increased to $4.88 per gallon, according to GasBuddy’s latest survey of 775 stations in the city.

Higher energy costs are driving up prices for everything including public transit. The annual inflation rate in the U.S. was 7.9% for the 12 months ending February 2022—the highest since January 1982, according to U.S. Labor Department data.

Having safe places to work is an added problem. Crime in Seattle forced Amazon to temporarily close a downtown office building last month where 1,800 employees were assigned. Many returned to working from home.

In February, MyNorthwest reported Seattle’s overall crime rate increased by 10% from 2020 to 2021. Violent crime increased by 20%, property crime went up 9%, aggravated assaults were up 24%, and robberies rose by 18%.

“Working from home will be very much a part of our post-COVID economy,” says Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, who is co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s productivity, innovation, and entrepreneurship program. “So, the sooner policymakers and business (employers) think of the implications of a home-based workforce, the better our firms and communities will be positioned.”

Reuters reported that U.S.-based Enterprises Technology Research surveyed 1,200 chief information officers who indicated in 2021 that more than one-third of their workers are “permanently remote.”

The logical follow-up question: Should employers—business and government—get rid of offices altogether? “No, but you may want to move it,” Bloom adds. Offices are moving from skyscrapers to industrial parks, where there is ample free parking and easier access.

The pandemic reversed the urban growth pattern starting in the 1980s “when Americans have flocked to revitalized downtowns.”

Regardless, whether offices are in tall buildings, strip malls or industrial parks, they must be reconfigured. They need to be roomier and arranged for social distancing. So will lobbies, elevators, breakrooms, transit buses, and commuter trains, which often were crammed to capacity.

Work from home is not for everyone.

Bloom found only half of the people surveyed were able to work from home at an efficiency rate of 80% or more—mostly managers, professionals, and financial workers.

“The remaining half of Americans don’t benefit from those technological workarounds. Many employees in retail, health care, transportation, and business services cannot do their jobs anywhere other than a traditional workplace,” Bloom adds.

Forbes points out the decade between 2020 and 2030 will see the number of Americans eligible to work at its lowest point since the Civil War. “So it is a good thing that remote work makes many employees happier and more productive because companies will want to hold onto those employees.”

Remote versus on-site work is a complex issue—one that requires creative, inclusive problem-solving. Over the last two years inflation, public safety, and soaring gas prices complicated the issue. However, those factors must be considered.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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Article Source: Spokane Journal