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Introduction

Avoiding the commute has been one of the most cited advantages of remote working during the pandemic. In the 2020 WDC / NUI Galway national remote working survey, the top two advantages of remote working cited were ‘No traffic and no commute’ (76%) and ‘Reduced costs of going to work and commuting’ (55%), McCarthy et al. 2020 See here.

Two years on and now that the Covid restrictions have been lifted, is this still the case? Are people enjoying being back working face to face? Is the commute worth it? To what extent are employers supporting hybrid working – part-time in the office/ part-time remote?

Separately, the need for carbon emission reductions is even more urgent, with the most recent IPCC report highlighting the need for immediate action. In 2020, transport accounted for 18% of Ireland’s total emissions. This was a reduction on previous years – mainly accounted for by the Covid restrictions but with the return to ‘normal’, transport emissions are set to return to pre pandemic levels.

In addition, we are now experiencing huge fuel price increases with the introduction of sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine and there is little prospect of reductions soon. Those who face long commutes are now having to endure hefty fuel bills. Are those with long commutes to work, now longing to work from home?

Carbon emissions savings

Along with the benefits of avoiding the commute and lower fuel bills, research from the WDC-NUI Galway national remote working survey found that there were significant reductions in carbon emissions due to remote working.

Of those commuting to work more than 61% of workers used private vehicles to commute to work. This is likely to be higher in more regional and rural locations as there is an absence of quality public transport.

Analysis of the 2020 data showed that there would be 59% potential emissions* savings in commuting if the ‘preferred’ working from home option was accommodated. This ‘preferred’ option was where 83% of respondents said that they wanted to work remotely some or all of the time post the pandemic. In the same survey a year later this figure had risen to 95%. See here for 2021 report.

Examining the data at a regional level there are potential savings ranging from 65% in the Midlands to 53% in the Border Region. All other regions report potential savings of between 58% and 63%. The regional differences are largely associated with (1) the extent of the traffic flows between home and work i.e. the number of cars and (2) the distance travelled. The volume of commuters from the Midlands to (typically) Dublin will be significant. In regional locations the distance travelled may be longer but the volume of traffic is likely to be lower.

The emissions savings are likely to be even greater if there was a significant take -up of electric vehicles (EVs). If the target of (1,000,000 EVs by 2030) was realised, and this was coupled with the ‘preferred’ working from home option, a reduction of 73% in emissions could be achieved, the analysis found.

However the take-up of EVs is predicated the availability of EV charging points – as well as the price of EVs. The Western Development Commission has, for some years highlighted the need for EV infrastructure, especially in more regional and rural locations see WDC Report on Low Carbon.  The longer distances to be travelled in rural areas will mean a greater need for more charging points. Without these services being available and reliable, rural dwellers could be reluctant to adopt the new technologies.  Similarly, it could deter visitors who might be concerned about the availability of charging/fuelling points.

Household/ Individual Cost Savings

This week, the Department of Public Enterprise and Reform published An Evaluation of the Impacts of Remote Working, which evaluates the impacts of remote working to the Irish economy and society. Overall, the evaluation finds that remote working is likely to have a positive impact on the Irish economy and society and the report documents the various estimated costs and benefits.

At an individual level it estimates cost savings of €413 per annum in commuting costs due to remote working. The additional heating and electricity costs are estimated at €109, leaving a net benefit of €304. While all these costs have risen in the last few months the commuting costs savings are likely to continue to outweigh domestic heating and electricity costs. In addition, the evaluation estimates the value of time saved associated with reduced commuting at €1,103 per annum.

Conclusions

The appetite for remote working is a real opportunity, in the post pandemic work environment, to support and retain those employees who want to continue to remote work, along with allaying the additional fuel costs associated with commuting, as well as delivering an ‘easy win’ in terms of carbon emissions reductions – which is urgently needed.

The benefits of remote working – be it at home or at a hub close by are already realising emissions savings. In terms of Government policy it seems like the promotion of continued remote working, especially to a workforce that is keen to continue the practice, at least during some of the working week, is an easy win.

There is a real window of opportunity now to influence post pandemic work practices. Companies and employers are now returning to the workplace with the lifting of Covid restrictions. What we have learned through the pandemic should not be lost. We should try to retain remote working for those who can and wish to do so.

The WDC – NUI Galway 2022 National Remote Working survey results are due out in the next few weeks. This will give us an indication of how employees are feeling about remote working in 2022 and how employers are responding following the ending of covid workplace restrictions.

Deirdre Frost, Policy Analyst, Western Development Commission, 19 May 2022

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the WDC.

 

*(per capita commuting emissions (kg CO2 -eq/person). This was part of a further analysis of the 2020 National Remote Working Survey carried out by researchers at NUIG led by Eoghan Clifford, Senior Lecturer, School of Engineering, NUI Galway in association with Prof. Alma McCarthy.

McCarthy, A., O’Connor, N., Ó Síocháin, T. and Frost, D. (2021). Remote Working: Ireland’s National Survey – Phase III Report. Galway, Ireland: NUI Galway Whitaker Institute & the Western Development Commission.