Allowing employees to work from home more could be a big step towards New Zealand reaching its climate change goals. All it needs is a subtle twist in policy, writes economist Rosie Collins.
Overseas, the Covid-19 pandemic forced countries to shift to remote work en masse and long term. In New Zealand, we dipped a toe in during lockdowns and then went back to normal. But working from home some of the time could be a useful way for us to reduce driving, congestion and emissions.
Working from home, or out of the office, could easily become normal. But it isn’t yet in New Zealand, where longstanding conventions have made office work the norm. We should therefore make a subtle change in current rules, making the option to work from home some of the time a default right, with exceptions when it is obviously not viable. We know how humans behave – default choices become the norm.
Climate change and work
Over the decade to 2018, greenhouse gas emissions fell a little in New Zealand. But within this period, household emissions rose sharply, as they did from services and primary sectors. All the reductions were from industry, particularly utilities.
Commuting contributes to about a quarter of households’ direct carbon footprint annually. We love to drive cars. About three-quarters of workers usually drive to work, either in their own car, a work vehicle, or as a passenger. Children are usually dropped off to school by car too. Young adults tend to walk, bike and bus more.
Commuting equates to 800 million car journeys, or 2,000 carbon kilotonnes of emissions each year. Changing how we travel to work, or working from home more, can therefore help reduce carbon emissions.
In the 2018 Census, about one in 10 worked from home. It has barely changed since the late 1990s. Despite massive increases in digital tech, traditional office life in New Zealand has not changed much.
Until early 2020, that is. During the first lockdowns of the pandemic, four in 10 people worked from home. But once the restrictions were lifted, only around 60,000 New Zealanders continued to work from home (some of the time) regularly. Traffic, congestion and emissions rose again.
The OECD says 30-40% of New Zealand’s workforce could work remotely at least some of the time, which aligns with what we saw in lockdown. It would reduce emissions, and there could be gains to productivity too, owing to increases in worker happiness and less angry time driving in congestion.
Making flexible working the default, not the exception
With the way the rest of the world is shifting to remote work anyway, it makes sense to save on these emissions if we can.
To make it happen, the current rules on flexible work have to be addressed. While remote work is legal at the moment, it isn’t easy for employees. Employers like to have their employees in the office, which has many benefits, particularly for workplace culture and cohesion.
The Employment Relations Act gives you the right to request flexible work, but requests have to be put in writing. The Employment NZ website encourages workers to think about the “negative impacts” of their request. And employers are given a full suite of reasons to turn requests down, such as practicality, cost, or team impacts.
This process puts a lot of pressure on employees to instigate and justify remote working. It does nothing to address a worker’s fear of stigma or the potential power dynamics at play.
Any worker starting out in a job understands the inherent fear of rocking the boat in their first few months. And because humans settle into habits quickly, workers are unlikely to change things up once they’re settled in a routine at the office.
The rules need to change only subtly. The legislation should make it your right to work remotely at least some of the time (maybe two days a week), unless your employer can put in writing why it’s not feasible for you to do so.
This flips the current rules and puts the onus on employers to justify when an arrangement is unworkable for them. Most importantly, it takes the burden away from employees and reframes a new social norm. It’s a nudge policy, like how entering into KiwiSaver was made the default option unless you opted out. Nudge puts the good option centre stage, which makes it the most likely to be selected.
Of course, some sectors cannot work remotely. So we would need exceptions, say for many occupations in hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing and construction. But for the 40% of jobs that could be done remotely, like in ICT and sales (and economists), two days should be the starting point.
Doing so would get more of us off the roads and save emissions. If even a quarter of New Zealanders who drive to work shift to two days a week at home, we can save 200 carbon kilotonnes each year, or 10% of our commuting footprint.
With the Climate Change Commission looking for every opportunity to reduce emissions to net zero, it’s a striking policy opportunity that would need only a small stroke of the legislative pen.
This article is based on the winning essay of the Dr Ed Hearnshaw Prize for Economics and the Environment, and is republished with the author’s permission.
In the latest episode of When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey talks about the rise of the work from home economy with Dr Paula O’Kane from Otago University. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.