Part 1: Will We See a Massive Shift to Remote Working and Learning — Don’t Count On It
The coronavirus is taking a dramatic toll on human lives in more ways than one. Contributing to tens of thousands of lives lost and hundreds of thousands of people sick and hospitalized, the virus has ravaged communities and led to hundreds of millions of people worldwide being locked down in their homes with various levels of enforcement and business closures. Universities and schools have closed down and moved instruction online. Stores and service providers have closed, others have restricted their opening hours, and many have dramatically changed their operating procedures and protocols in an effort to promote social distancing. Store shelves continue to be half-empty, toilet paper remains hard to find, and a number of essential commodities are being rationed in an effort to mitigate against panic buying and hoarding.
With stay-at-home orders in place worldwide, people are trying to find creative ways to entertain themselves at home, workers and students are glued to their computers and tablets for hours at a time — learning, working, and meeting virtually; and activities previously taken for granted — like eating out at a restaurant or going out to the theater to watch a movie or show — are completely shut down. State and country borders have been closed, international and domestic travel has virtually ground to a halt, trains and planes are parked and sitting idle, and cruise lines have been stranded in open waters denied the opportunity to dock at port after port as passengers and crew members fell sick and died on-board. Businesses and factories are shuttered around the world, vehicle sales are plummeting, and the health care system is stretched beyond its limits and running low on critical supplies and equipment even as the president invokes a wartime Defense Production Act to compel auto companies to manufacture ventilators. And the list of COVID-19 impacts goes on and on…
The bottom line is that the virus has brought about unprecedented changes to communities and lifestyles, upending traditional ways in which the vast majority of people have conducted business, engaged in work, and shopped for goods and services for the better part of a century. Perhaps it can be argued that, “once we get through this, cities as we know them will be changed forever”.
And yet under the dark cloud of the virus, there appears to be a silver lining. With workers and students stuck at home, businesses and factories closed and operating in restricted modes, and travel and tourism severely curtailed, cities around the world are seeing lighter traffic and fewer roadway fatalities, cleaner streams, and recovered natural ecosystems. The reduced wear and tear on the nation’s transportation infrastructure is welcome relief to transportation agencies grappling with high maintenance backlogs and costs. Roadway traffic is being replaced by a surge in internet traffic. These trends, occurring in the wake of COVID-19, appear to be advancing the cause of sustainability and literally giving societies a breath of fresh air.
It is in this context that planners, futurists, and scholars spanning multiple disciplines are pondering the future of transport: Are changes in human activity patterns and travel behaviors going to persist in a post COVID-19 era? To what degree are people are going to revert to their pre-COVID-19 era lifestyles and behaviors when the dangers of the virus are in a distant past, and restrictions on businesses, activities, and travel are lifted? As the world slowly but surely conquers the virus, will people go back to engaging in activities and travel as they did in the past, or will people embrace a new normal characterized by significantly greater levels of remote activity engagement, social distancing, and reduced travel and out-of-home activity engagement of all kinds?
The challenge in answering these questions is that it is very difficult to disentangle multiple effects playing out simultaneously. The virus is having a significant adverse impact on the economy with millions of individuals filing for unemployment benefits within the past month alone. With markets worldwide experiencing a free-fall, business activity and travel nose-diving, and global trade dwindling badly, the economy could be headed for a recession (if it’s not already there). When the virus is done and gone, to what degree can any persistent changes in consumption behaviors, travel demand, and human activity patterns due to the virus be disentangled from changes wrought by a potentially severe economic downturn. What follows in this two-part essay is an analysis of what the virus might do to lifestyles and travel demand; society has already experienced the terrible toll that a deep recession can exact on businesses and households — and there is little reason to believe that the toll will be any different this time around despite heroic efforts to shore up the economy with trillions of dollars in stimulus.
Telecommuting and the Future of Work
Much is being made of the wholesale shift of work and school to the virtual realm. With workers and students quickly adapting to new ways of working, learning, and meeting in cyberspace, it would appear that there is considerable potential for realizing a permanent shift in the way people engage in these critical activities. An analysis of the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) data set in the United States shows that trips to work (from any origin) account for 43 percent of all morning peak (6 AM to 9 AM) trips, and trips from work (to any destination) account for 30 percent of all afternoon peak (4 PM to 7 PM) trips. Thus, eliminating work trips alone would dramatically decrease peak period traffic and help reduce the energy and emissions footprint of household travel.
With technological platforms enabled by high-speed internet making it possible to work collaboratively, meet virtually, and learn online, it is entirely possible for a workforce and student body historically accustomed to physical commutes and face-to-face interactions to transition to a whole new mode of operation. However, just because people can operate in this new mode of work and school doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to do so in the long term. Aristotle stated that humans are social animals and there is no evidence to suggest that the rapid evolution and adoption of technology has done anything to dampen the human desire to interact and connect. In 1990, less than 10 percent of households had connections to high-speed internet and the percent of workers working from home stood at 3 percent. Nearly 30 years later, despite 90 percent of households having high-speed internet connections and the cost, performance, and reliability of internet bandwidth and portable computing devices and platforms improving dramatically, the percent of telecommuters has crept up to only 5.3 percent — which is neither an indicator of any widespread desire to telecommute on the part of employees nor an indicator of any widespread desire to make telecommuting a way of business on the part of employers.
Despite the benefits that are often touted, sustaining telecommuting on a massive scale is not easy. Many occupations do not lend themselves to telecommuting to begin with. Even occupations that do lend themselves to telecommuting often require in-person interactions, rendering full-time telecommuting quite challenging. Even the most technologically oriented companies of this era, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Apple, among others, have massive sprawling campuses characterized by open collaborative spaces so that workers can interact and work on the next great idea. These companies operate their own fleets of buses to shuttle workers to the workplace and offer a host of amenities to make the workplace attractive. For many, a distinct workplace offers a sense of purpose, the ability to maintain separation between work and home, a place to interact with peers and colleagues, a social ecosystem that enhances well-being, and the opportunity to create professional networks in an otherwise increasingly disconnected world. In the end, it is personal relationships built through face-to-face meetings and connections that drive the trust and create the chemistry needed to advance an organization’s ambitious agenda.
While there is no doubt that the current pandemic has provided families an invaluable opportunity to have together-time and reconnect, it has also led to decreased productivity, increased stress and strife, new rules for kids back home from college, a surge in divorce filings, and the need to establish code words to escape domestic violence at the hands of abusive partners who are now at home full-time. Working extensively at home can lead to isolation, which is more of a punishment reserved for criminals rather than a reward. While working at home on occasion can help boost productivity (by eliminating office distractions), particularly when trying to meet tight deadlines, the percent of workers who both can and want to truly work remotely on a full-time or near full-time basis while maintaining high levels of productivity and connectivity is likely to be quite small as illustrated by the census numbers (although some are more optimistic about potential growth in work from home in a post-COVID-19 era).
The Future of Learning
It is similarly hard to imagine that education at K-12 level will shift in any dramatic fashion to the virtual world. Similar to the case of work-from-home, despite the proliferation in online educational resources and platforms, and support services provided by school districts, the percent of children home-schooled is a paltry 3.4 percent as of 2018. Although this percentage is more than double that from 20 years ago, the fact remains that the percent of households choosing to home-school their children is very small. For many, school represents a safe place to learn and develop academic, social, athletic, artistic, musical, oratory, and political skills. School is where children go when parents have to work, and social networks are often formed around extra-curricular and after-school activities and events. With school districts and schools implementing CDC protocols to ensure safety and hygiene, it is unlikely that parents can or will choose to transition their kids to home-schooling on any mass scale in a post-COVID-19 era when people are back to work.
It will be interesting to see how higher education evolves in the wake of COVID-19, given the economic considerations at play for many families who seek the benefits of a college education but worry about costs and student debt. Universities worldwide have shifted to virtual classes delivered via video-conferencing platforms. However, as in the case of workers, just because it is possible to take college classes and earn degrees remotely doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a huge latent market that wants to shift from the in-person mode to the online (virtual) mode. There is no question that enrollment in online degree programs has been growing while in-person college enrollments have stagnated or even decreased. However, the decrease in face-to-face college enrollments appears to be largely due to demographic and socio-economic forces at play rather than any systematic and deliberate shift from in-person to online learning platforms. Online programs are experiencing growth because the rapidly evolving workplace is motivating many working adults and individuals who started but never finished college to seek opportunities to upskill and acquire credentials that are critically needed to stay competitive in the job market. In-person college enrollments are facing downward pressure largely due to a shrinking traditional college-age demographic and mounting concerns around college affordability and student debt. It is certainly possible that the virtual education experienced by many during the COVID-19 crisis could motivate some to transition to online education — to be close to home, out of fear of a virus resurrection, or to save money.
But college is where school spirit is fostered, relationships are forged, research gets done, and kids become adults. It is simply not possible to enjoy the full college experience, engage in clubs, join fraternities and sororities, and participate in athletics without going to an institution of higher education in person. While a few may be inclined to substitute the in-person experience with the virtual, it is unlikely that this is the modus operandi that would be chosen on a mass scale — and it is possible that many are considering a gap year during the period of uncertainty so that they can come to college in-person when things are back to normal. Many students struggle with virtual learning experiences, as evidenced by the many petitions currently underway requesting institutions to shift grading systems to pass-fail rather than the traditional letter-based grading systems (although stresses around the COVID-19 likely exacerbated the problem). Many college students are novice learners who benefit greatly from full explanation, the ability to interact with faculty and peers, and the structure and discipline that a regular school and classroom environment provides. The amenities, opportunities, laboratories, clubs, hands-on experiences, and learning environments afforded by a college campus simply cannot be replicated online, as evidenced by the failure of MOOCs, for the most part, to supplant traditional university education.
Having said that, universities may have come upon their day of reckoning. Many are now questioning the high cost of a college education, and realizing that they can get a decent college education without the need for bells and whistles, and from the comfort of their home. Universities are generally not prepared financially and organizationally to weather a COVID-19 type event (not all that unlike many private companies). Some pain is inevitable, but opportunities to build something new and different abound. Universities will need to increasingly consider strategies to enhance access and offer alternatives to students with costs dependent on the amount of in-person experience, nature and earning potential of the major, cost of delivering the major, and extent of access to on-campus facilities, amenities, and opportunities.
In the end, except for some uncertainty in the evolution of institutions of higher education, will we see wholesale changes in the future of work and school? Don’t count on it.
Acknowledgements: The author thanks Shivam Sharda and Irfan Batur, Graduate Research Associates at Arizona State University, for their assistance with analysis of the 2017 National Household Travel Survey data set.
Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this story are those of the author alone and do not in any way reflect the opinion or position of the author’s past, present, or future employers, research sponsors, or collaborators.