Happening Now

Don’t Declare Commuting’s Death So Quickly

May 15, 2020

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

There’s a line of thinking emerging that telecommuting for work might be the “new normal” that everyone is now talking about as the U.S. begins to think about how it will live through -- and with -- the coronavirus outbreak.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D), whose state has long thrived on rail commuting between New York City and his state’s tonier suburbs bordering New York, is among them.

In an interview this week with Bloomberg TV, Lamont said that the idea of the Monday through Friday commute to NYC for work may well be behind us, especially if you can do “two-thirds of your job from home in Stamford.” Lamont is not alone in this as a number of Wall Street execs, such as Barclays Plc Chief Executive Officer Jes Staley, have said that working with thousands of employees in one building will be a “thing of the past.” Around 43,000 people commuted to New York City from Southwest Connecticut in 2017.

For commuter-rail operators that would be a sobering reality, and it could also severely crimp state-supported Amtrak services as well. Cutting back on those services based on this assumption, however, would be a policy mistake. And like many policy mistakes in U.S. transportation, it would be based on a narrow-minded view of who travels, why they travel and whether serving those travelers is worth the time and trouble.

I certainly recognize the appeal of this argument. For many years workers have agitated for more freedom from their employers to work from home, and telecommuting agreements have now become commonplace in many workplaces. A lot of employees in a range of industries have discovered just how much they can do from their laptop – including ourselves here at the Rail Passengers Association.

We’ve been forced to conduct meetings with key congressional offices, committee staff, federal agencies and with fellow advocates using services like GoToMeeting, or Zoom, or Microsoft Teams. We’re very proud of the fact that we were able to pivot our in-person Spring meeting and Advocacy Summit into an all-online affair that conducted virtual meetings with more than 200 House and Senate offices in a single “Virtual Day On The Hill.”

Thanks to technology we were able to keep our message in front of congressional leaders, and that counted for a lot when we were able to help secure more than a billion dollars in relief funds for Amtrak and $25 billion for transit and public transportation in the first major round of coronavirus relief.

But even with this success, it’s important to recognize that whether you’re building a barn, an office tower or a business relationship, remote-control only goes so far. Not everyone is a knowledge worker. And not all business relationships can be grown, nurtured and expanded while sitting in front of a screen as your children or pets frolic behind you...or in some cases, in front of you.

Even for so-called “knowledge workers,” telepresence can seem an incomplete substitute for some kinds of workplace interaction. Indeed, Lamont’s own view allows that for this new telecommuter at least a third of their work can NOT be done from their homes in Stamford. I believe the real fraction is more like 50%.

Moreover, some kinds of work simply can’t be done on a screen. Building things, negotiating a complex agreement, delivering hands-on patient care in a medical setting and many other tasks require humans to be face-to-face – even if they’re six feet apart.

There’s a kind of narcissism at work in these types of arguments, the presumption among those who have been able to stay at home and work from a laptop that everyone else is just like them and works the same way. Of course many workers have not had that luxury, and make no mistake it IS a luxury.

Doctors and nurses are suffering from coronavirus infections at higher rates than the general public because they’re forced to be in harm’s way day after day. Amazon warehouse workers have fallen ill packing vital relief supplies for some and frivolous entertainment purchases for others.

Turning every clerk and administrative employee in Flyover Country into a home-bound office drone assumes that everyone has the same high-speed Internet connection that Governor Lamont might find in Stamford. But that’s patently untrue (read it for yourself here). Police officers, emergency medical technicians, grocery stockers, bus drivers and transit operators are all required to be in a particular place to do their jobs.

There’s also an even-larger social issue that will come into sharp relief if pressure continues to keep workers laboring from their homes even after the crisis passes: do employers have an obligation to supply basic workplaces to their staffs? It’s not hard to see the employers’ attitudes toward telecommuting now flipping 180 degrees from “you must be in the office no matter your work role” to “you must supply your own workplace, home office, internet connection and computer to remain employed.”

Imagine an employer no longer required to rent office space, to spend money and time on policing employee interactions or to invest in ensuring workplace safety. No more workman’s compensation insurance, no more break rooms for staff, no more large-volume internet connections to link divisions and offices. You as the employee will provide your own office, your own break room, your own internet and your own facilities, all on your own dime. At scale, this would mean shifting the infrastructure burden for employers on to the employees themselves. It’s the dystopian reality of the so-called “gig economy” on a much larger scale, turning Americans into a nation of freelancers, hustling for every available dollar while absorbing the everyday risks, burdens and costs of doing business once borne by the employer profiting from that work.

I believe if we get to that point, there will be blowback. A lot of folks will resent being forced to absorb even more of their employers’ burdens. Some will be happy to stay home, but many others will demand that collective, collaborative experience of rewarding work with a great team. A lot more will simply be unable to sustain the telecommuting lifestyle, either because of small children or poor Internet connectivity.

After two months of telecommuting there are many employees now pining to go back to a workplace. The novelty of working from home has worn thin. While introverts may be thrilled to finally stay at home, much of America’s stay-at-home workforce is growing tired of the forced telecommute. My own prediction is that some employers will try to pare back on offices and facilities, but that commuting in some form will stay with us. Humans need to interact with one another, and will need to make short trips to do so.

As long as we can keep passengers safe, passengers will eventually want to ride. After all, who really wants to see their colleagues in their underwear?

(What do you think? Let us know in the Comments below.)