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  • Writer's pictureBenoit Hardy-Vallée

On the social & economic impact of telework during lockdown, a conversation with Pr. Haider (S01E13)

In May, the Urban Analytics institute released a research report on “Telework during COVID-19 lockdown in Canada” that analyzes the prevalence of work from home (telework) and its impact on transportation and real estate in urban context

In Canada, more than one in three employers reported that at least half of their workforce was working from home or remotely, while only 11% of the businesses reported so before the pandemics.

If you ask employees, about 40% of Canadian workers work from home right now.

Why telework was not mainstream:

Despite smartphone, web conferencing, virtual private networks, cloud computing, and software as a service, remote work was still not mainstream, but it should have gradually increased over the past 30 years. Pr. Haider identified 4 reasons:

(1) One of the reason is the managerial class attitude, i.e. those whose job is to ensure that the deliverables are delivered on time, that the people are following the discipline. They confused presenteeism with efficiency or talent. As workers became more efficient, managers had to find more work for them. Instead of evaluating the deliverables for their timing, quality and excellence, we ended up measuring how long a person stay, as if they're working on a manufacturing plant and have to stand at a conveyor belt. In that analogy, the moment they are not at the conveyor belt, things would fall apart--this is not how the knowledge economy works however. A lot of the metrics developed for worker productivity came from agriculture and manufacturing and were brought into white-collar management systems.

(2) The other reason is that people like going to work. That's why they spent so much time on clothing and shoes and ties and accessories - presenting their best self. It is also an opportunity to socialize during and outside of work hours.

(3) Then you have workers who always have questions, need help, and benefit from being in the presence of others.

(4) Some people don't want to be confined to the same 200 square feet home office space, day in and day out working from home and enjoy the diversity of an office environment.

(5) Companies thought that if their employees are not in front of them, then certainly they are not working, not productive.

The productivity myth:

Interestingly while some economists write papers about how productivity increases when people come to work, if you walk into an economics department in any university, you will notice that almost all office doors are closed.

We don't know how much of this interaction really happens. Look at all the innovation that software companies have seen--it would be ridiculous to assume that all the code that we see in the world is written in North America. India continued to be one of the largest producers of software. We have seen how telework had worked and created all sorts of innovations in the software world because the first generation of telework was not working from home in a different suburb but large sections of code being done by software houses established in different cities in India and China and elsewhere. So if innovation can happen in software industry by telework, why not other industries?

Housing affordability and traffic congestion

We never really solved the twin problems of housing affordability and traffic congestion - both driven by the need to work in an office. The need to live in a smaller space or to endure a long commute creates lot of stress for workers. Most of the time, our collective solutions have been supply-side: build more roads or subways to reduce traffic congestion, or build more housing to allow people to live closer to their workplace. But these solutions do not work - congestion does not go away and housing becomes more expensive.

Another reason why these supply-side solution stay popular is that politicians like to promise building or railroads, give their name to bridges or cut ribbon for new housing projects; you can't, however, cut ribbons for a 20% travel reduction. The electorate has to communicate to the leadership that it's okay if you don't build something, that you can consider the demand-side solutions rather than the supply-side solutions only. Telework can improve people's life without spending so much money.

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