As most employers—at least here in Florida, where I’m writing from—have settled into the post-Delta paradigm of trying to balance remote work with requirements that employees be in the office, we’re seeing some testing of the early-pandemic takes that office work would never, well, return to the office. 1
There’s one reason we might favor a balance that emphasizes work-from-home: it significantly reduces carbon emissions. About 16% of transportation-sector emissions come from passenger vehicle commutes, 2 such that remote work directly mitigates some of these emissions by reducing the amount employees have to commute. Thus, remote work has a great deal of potential as a climate mitigation strategy.
But there’s a dark side to advancing remote work: the vast majority of jobs authorized for remote work are held by higher-wage, highly educated workers. 3 That’s because remote work is more feasible in certain industries and in association with certain job tasks. 4
This means that advancing remote work risks accelerating, rather than reversing, existing social and economic inequities. Moreover, remote work relies on an infrastructure existing outside of the office—and outside of the immediate control of the employer—to function. Disadvantaged communities are less likely to have reliable high-speed internet available at home; their homes are less likely to have dedicated work space available; their neighborhoods are less likely to be free from environmental distractions. In short, remote work is not an equally available opportunity.
There are solutions to this challenge, however. In addition to broad-scale solutions that focus on elevating members of marginalized communities to have access to better education and jobs, there are also remote-work-specific solutions that fall under the sustainability umbrella. This includes policies like expanding weatherization and solarization programs to include remote-work readiness; providing neighborhood space-sharing programs for remote work; and, most ambitiously, municipal fiber or broadband programs. And because the emissions benefits of remote work are impressive, finding solutions to the equity challenges is worth the effort. 5
So how do we overcome the equity barriers to remote work while simultaneously convincing employers to support a remote workforce?
First, it’s important to recognize that one often trades off accessibility when working in person: finding care for a child or relative is expensive and can be unreliable; living close to a workplace in an urban area can be much more expensive than remotely working from a more affordable location; dry cleaning bills and expensive suits add up much quicker when you’re using them five days a week instead of a couple hours a day for Zoom meetings. Remote work solves these problems, at least partially.
Second, promoting remote work involves a network of solutions that can reduce many barriers, and has the benefit of providing access to remote work to all while particularly benefiting disadvantaged communities. Several involve cross-department projects, as well, which can ease the workload on a sustainability director, leverage talents already available at the city or county, and provide ways to fund the projects from several sources—and climate policies that solve multiple problems are good climate policies.
Reliable high-speed internet
In an age where working remotely requires a laptop and a Zoom subscription, the single greatest barrier to employee productivity at home is high-speed internet. White adults are 19% more likely to have access to high speed internet than Hispanic adults; a quarter of Hispanic households and 17% of Black households have internet access only through a smartphone. 6 Neighborhoods in the lowest fifth income tier are five times more likely to lack even the option of broadband at home than neighborhoods in the top tier. 7 Click below to view the full map and accompanying article in more detail. It’s also worth noting that, particularly in the South, plenty of suburban areas with lower incomes have inadequate access to broadband, as well.
As we wait for solutions like SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service to provide coverage to rural areas in a more robust fashion (seriously, I pre-ordered in April and am limping along at about 6 Mbps, waiting for the satellites to align), we must recognize that these expensive services only provide access to those with higher incomes in rural areas, just as urban high-speed internet currently provides the best access only to those who can afford it in urban areas. This equity gap extends not just to remote work, but to access to information important for civic engagement, telemedicine, and school.
There are solutions, however. The most ambitious is municipal fiber, a local government-owned telecommunications network that serves part or all of a locality. In addition to being a public utility that can be operated as an enterprise (meaning it eventually makes money for the government), municipal fiber (and similar programs) provides higher speeds and better reliability than existing networks based on DSL or cable. From an equity perspective, local governments have a great deal of flexibility in providing reduced-cost access for lower-income households, frequently without having a significant impact on the ability of the enterprise to generate net revenue for the government’s general fund.
For cities and counties where the upfront cost of municipal fiber is too high, or where state law prohibits municipal telecommunications networks (like Nebraska),8 there are alternatives. During the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, a number of school districts partnered with other local governments to provide mobile hotspots to students with no home internet access, or to use school buses or other government vehicles to create mobile hotspots in neighborhoods less likely to have reliable internet at home. Particularly where there are concentrated areas that lack reliable internet access, these tools can be effective and far less time-consuming than building out a fiber network.
Households in communities of color, most particularly Hispanic and Asian-American households, have 18% more adults living under one roof than white households. 9 Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are three and eight times as likely, respectively, as white Americans to live in overcrowded housing, defined as having fewer than 165 square feet per person in the dwelling. 10 This translates to less available space that can be dedicated toward remote work.
Tackling this issue seems thorny: it can be difficult and costly to renovate housing stock to allow for remote work (more on that later). But the government can facilitate better access to workspaces in a few ways.
Most novelly, a local government can sponsor a space sharing program—often as simple as hosting an online message board that allows for space to be offered or requested by constituents. This can allow businesses or nonprofits with extra space to provide a quiet place for work or study to those who don’t have dedicated space at home. A creative local government could also provide incentives for businesses who provide space to students or low-income individuals in a way that allows them to access remote work or school. Extra space at government facilities, too, can be made available to those in need via the same platform.
More traditionally, cities can provide access to neighborhood centers, park facilities, and library facilities for remote work. This works particularly well for those workers who need space only occasionally for certain meetings or to work remotely once or twice a week. Businesses, too, can participate in this type of shared space. Coffee shops are popular places to work but not as frequently found in disadvantaged neighborhoods. There’s no reason that local businesses can’t replicate this environment on-demand through a space-sharing program.
Imagine a neighborhood church repurposing its Sunday School rooms as weekday offices. Or the nearby auto-repair garage offering access to its backroom office that usually sits vacant during the day. Or a bodega down the block setting some chairs and tables outside with ample sunlight and still in reach of the building’s internet signal.
Renovating houses is expensive, messy, time consuming, and in the case of rental property, nearly impossible for the tenant to accomplish. At first glance, this is a difficult way to encourage remote work, but it’s actually significantly easier than it seems. Many cities and counties already have energy efficiency and weatherization programs in place, which provide energy analyses and make recommendations for improvements like attic insulation, window and door replacement, and the like. Many such programs provide subsidies to make improvements for qualifying homeowners and renters.
This type of program can be relatively easily expanded to include remote-work-readiness improvements. Some possible ideas:
- Adding a prefab “office shed” to a backyard11
- Enclosing an existing outdoor space already attached to the home—like a porch—and adding internet access to it
- Creating a partition inside the house that allows for a small, secluded workspace
- Adding sound insulation for homes near busy streets or louder industrial sites
These home improvements can be paired with energy efficiency upgrades as well, simultaneously reducing potentially dirty electricity usage in the home.
And, not all of these programs involve direct subsidies. Programs like property-assessed clean energy (PACE) can be used for weatherization and can be expanded (if needed—some PACE programs already cover this use) to include remote-work readiness improvements.
With care, promoting remote work can be an important component of a system designed to reduce transportation-sector emissions while also improving equity in disadvantaged communities.
28% of all passenger vehicle miles traveled are commute miles, according to the Department of Transportation, and 58% of transportation sector emissions are from light-duty vehicles, according to the EPA. While light-duty vehicle miles are not identical to passenger vehicle miles, the overlap is strong enough for the rough calculation made here. ↩
What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries. Lund, Madgavkar, et al. McKinsey Global Institute. November 23, 2020. ↩
Ibid. There are insufficient technologies available to allow a brain surgeon to perform surgery remotely; it’s difficult to drive a taxi from your home office; some jobs like mental health counseling are less effective when done remotely. Though there are jobs, like those of call center employees, that are effective remotely, these are far less common than remote-ready, higher-wage jobs. ↩
About 5% of overall emissions in the U.S. come from daily commuting in single-occupancy vehicles. Eliminating even a portion of this (McKinsey estimates that up to 39% of jobs in the US can be performed at least partially from home) could reduce emissions by millions of tons of CO2 annually. ↩
Home broadband adoption, computer ownership vary by race, ethnicity in the U.S. Atske, Perrin. Pew Research Center . July 16, 2021. ↩
Rich people have access to high-speed internet; many poor people still don’t. Holmes, Fox, et al. The Center for Public Integrity. May 12, 2016. ↩
Nebr. Rev. Stats. § 86-594 (2021). ↩
Prefab office sheds are one of the cooler things to become popular during the pandemic. They’re often priced quite expensively due to their use of designer-grade materials, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be constructed safely and durably for a fraction of the cost. You can also imagine these being installed in shared community spaces and “checked out” for free like study rooms in a library. ↩