If you needed confirmation that working from home was now ‘a thing,’ look no further than email signatures in the corporate world.

More and more, alongside all the usual information such as title and contact details, people are now stating which days of the week they are in the office and which days they are WFH.

Working from home – WFH – has become a part of life in a way it never was before. It’s one of the few things we can be thankful to Covid-19 for. The lockdown resulted in a massive leap forward in the ability of Kiwi businesses – and their staff – to work remotely.

Organisations that didn’t have the right technology or workplace culture suddenly had to change.

And the change is one that a lot of people have responded to very positively. The popularity of working from home is one of the main findings of a survey on Covid-19 travel behaviour undertaken by Auckland University Master of Engineering student Amanda Kananke Arachchige (supervised by Dr Doug Wilson in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering).

The survey was sent out to AA Members exclusively, and garnered just over 1,000 responses from all over the country. Of the respondents who regularly travelled to work prior to the lockdown, around one quarter said they intend to work more from home in the future; nearly all cited the fact they were more used to working from home and it suited them well.

The findings line up with a survey carried out by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) showing that following the lockdown, the proportion of people working from home has stabilised at 20%, compared to 9% prior to the lockdown.

Over 60% of NZTA survey respondents said their workplace had become more open to working from home, and a similar proportion said their workplace had changed how it operates so more people can regularly work from home. Of the 20% still working from home, nearly all would prefer to continue doing so.

The potential transport benefits of working from home are obvious: fewer people commuting means fewer vehicles on the road at peak times (particularly if the reduction is spread out across the week), meaning faster speeds and shorter travel times. And the great thing is, it doesn’t involving disadvantaging one user group in order to advantage another, which is what happens when lane space gets reallocated, for instance.

The benefits are borne out by the academic research, but are also evident in what we’re seeing in our cities right now. The AA’s own travel time data shows that congestion levels in Auckland and Wellington have climbed back up since the country entered Alert Level 1, but they’re still some way below the levels we would’ve expected to see had it not been for Covid-19.

Barney Irvine, the AA’s Principal Advisor for Infrastructure, says that working from home won’t make sense for every business, but that if as many as possible of those that can do it continue to do it for the long term, it could prove to be one of the most important single things we do to manage congestion.

“All the focus when it comes to addressing congestion has been on road and rail mega-projects costing billions of dollars. Yet we may find the solution that has the most impact is actually one that requires no infrastructure at all; one we arrived at by dealing with challenges that weren’t even transport-related.”

Of course, the de-congestion benefits aren’t the only appeal: workers stand to gain from reduced stress and lower commuting costs (such a parking); the economy as a whole stands to gain from reduced infrastructure costs and reduced CO2 emissions.

Given all of this, it’s surprising that working from home has attracted only limited interest from researchers until now. To help shed further light, the AA Research Foundation has commissioned a scoping study by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research into the economic, environmental, transport and wellbeing benefits of a scenario where everyone who can work from home one day each week, does so. The research will be the first step towards finding a way to calculate the benefits and costs of getting more people to work from home, as if it was any other transport project.

The aim should be to reduce the volume of commuters and to make it as easy as possible for people to commute outside peak hours. The result will provide benefits both for those working from home and those who still need to commute.

Reported by Barney Irvine for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue

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