Can India embrace work from home post-pandemic?

27 Apr 2020

Perhaps the most positive impact of the total lockdown imposed due to COVID-19 pandemic in the country is clean air in the Indian cities that one has not breathed for long.

Work from home

The main causes of air pollution are pollutants generate from industries, construction activities, and road transport. The cumulative impact of almost complete shutdown except the working of essential industries, barring supply of essential goods, and movement of emergency road vehicles on the quality of air is quite significant. The major air pollutants are particulate matter consisting of black carbon, sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, mineral dust, and water. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10), particularly fine particles of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5). PM10 and above often come from dust generated by the environment. Combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal, fuel oil, and diesel are a significant source of PM2.5. The other gaseous pollutants are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone.

By now it is a proven fact that air pollution has severe health consequences contributing to respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, and reproductive systems and it can also lead to cancer. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), high levels of air pollution raises the risk of dying from COVID-19 pandemic (BBC, 2020). One of the main reasons for air pollution is the increase in the number of on-road vehicles, both passenger and freight. Registered vehicles in India have grown from 5.3 million in 1981 to 210 million in 2015, with two-wheelers and cars having a share of 73 percent and 14 percent respectively. Fuel used in motor vehicles, diesel, and petrol through tail-pipe emission adds to the ambient concentration of particulates; the impact of diesel being higher than petrol. The growth of motor vehicles has been at the almost same level, which is nearly 10 percent in the last five years. Also, the movement of private vehicles, which are mostly concentrated in big cities, causes re-suspension of dust adding to ambient concentrations of particulates. The cities which do not have an adequate and efficient mass transit system, suburban rail, metro, and buses are dependent on shared auto-rickshaws, seven and three-seaters, and personal transport. The auto-rickshaws and tempos fuelled by mostly diesel, often adulterated, are a major source of air pollution. To control growing air pollution prompted many cities like Delhi to opt for CNG-run buses and other commercial vehicles. There was an immediate improvement in air quality when diesel was replaced by CNGbut it could not be sustained later on account of the significant increase in individual vehicles.

One of the important measures for implementing sustainable mobility is to implement ‘avoid’, a component of the abbreviation -- ASI-- a concept that stands for avoid, shift, and improve; which effectively translates into not taking a trip at all and cutting down all avoidable trips. The trips for work can be put off or reduced if one can perform the same tasks at his home. With the development of many information technology-enabled communication techniques, it is becoming increasingly possible to work from home without being physically present at the place of work. Many countries have started to adopt and promote work from home or teleworking as an instrument of travel demand management strategy. It has increased employee productivity by eliminating the hassles of driving to and from work contributing to savings of employers on office space and parking costs, reduced absenteeism, recruitment and retention of skilled employees, improved customer service, reduced traffic congestion and improved air quality as per a recent Colorado Transport Department report.

Work from home

As per TERI analysis, by moderating the travel demand to 15%, we would achieve a CO2 reduction of about 10% by 2030. In India the concept of work from home was followed by a few organisations, however, a large majority still preferred the traditional way of their employees commuting to the office to perform official tasks within fixed work hours. With the onset of the dreaded disease, many organisations have permitted their employees to work from home, and with pleasantly surprising results. The work from home mechanism has led to a positive change work outlook of a large number of employees. This technique has reduced work trips to the office and also helped the employees to avoid taking trips to attend meetings, conferences which have given way to alternatives like video conferencing, webinars, and e-conferences. Even as, at the present moment, most of the employees are captive but in the normal post-COVID19 scenario, these practices could reduce the number of work trips becoming a part of the travel demand management strategy.

As part of the concept of Travel Demand Management encouraging telecommuting or work from home could prove an effective means for using the existing IT infrastructure. The management technique impacts the travel choice of an individual and is linked up with trip attributes such as trip cost, time, and convenience and is largely governed by an individual’s income, attitude, and type of work. Different types of work from home policy can be chosen depending upon as working hours and types of jobs. The employees could keep a flexible work schedule as a part of work from home strategy which suits both him or her the organization he or she works for. It permits a working mother to strike a balance between work and child care. Adoption of staggered working hours/days such as three days’ work from office and two days’ work from home depending upon the job profile and work requirement of professionals especially those who have minimal interaction with clients should be encouraged.

The work from home experience or practice would help both in reducing emissions and scaling down traffic congestion on roads during peak hours. The current level of traffic generally fuelled by ever-growing private road vehicles is unsustainable. Instead, low-cost investments for providing facilities for cycling and walking along with cutting down mobility needs should take precedence over high capital-intensive transport projects. The work from home strategy would not only save the employees’ transit hours but also help them to maintain a healthy balance between working and leisure hours. It may go a long way in decreasing work-related stress and fatigue that is caused generally by long commutes to the office every day. Studies have shown that the employee’s productivity may increase by giving him flexible working hours. The companies, too, would save expenses on office infrastructure and the savings can be suitably utilized for other purposes.

However, large scale adoption of work from home may not be possible because of the lack of adequate telecommunication infrastructure. The speed and bandwidth of the online network must be both high quality and affordable. The workplace decorum like discipline, timely completion of tasks and monitoring of the progress of work, etc. have to be integrated in-office procedures. Even more important is ensuring strict data and information privacy of the online records of companies.

A beginning can be made by the Government by implementing work from home policy in some of the offices where it can be partially or fully introduced. This will also encourage other organisations to follow a similar work culture.