This time of unprecedented inactivity for economies across the world has given scientists a rare opportunity to study the impact of human activity on the environment. Essential workers in Nashville get to commute without traffic. People in India have views they haven’t seen in decades. This time has shown the impact of reduced traffic and the tradeoffs for the environment we didn’t even realize we’ve made. 

The effects of the shutdown have also given scientists the data to show that 70% of pollution affecting cities gets created through traffic since other sources of air pollution are still going at the same rate during the lockdown. So, we can no longer pass off the responsibility for air pollution and its effects on our environment. We must own that our activity creates our problems. So how can we keep these environmental improvements as we start to reopen the economy?

Distributed Work Helps the Environment

The main thing that is reducing traffic is safer at home orders that urged people to work from home. Is it possible to keep people working from home at scale like this when the economy reopens? Some companies are experiencing distributed work for the first time, and they are finding out it’s not as bad as they thought, co-locating with homeschools notwithstanding. 

Those companies should move towards a distributed model and figure out what that means for them. I highly recommend ReWork by the folks at Basecamp or the Distributed podcast by the founder of Automattic (aka WordPress). Both companies have built their culture around a distributed model, note that they avoid the word “remote” whenever possible. Both have developed best practices that will help your team transition to your new model.

Some other companies might be finding this transition to distributed work to be a more significant struggle than they thought it would be. For those companies, think through what is working during this time first before focusing on the negatives. Are there small aspects of this that you can continue after the safer at home orders are over? Can people work two days a week from home and three days a week in the office? Can you extend the workday by two hours, so people only work four days a week? All of these solutions can have a significant impact on traffic, quality of life, and the environment. 

What happens to businesses that relied on people going into the office?

Inevitably reduced traffic means fewer people. That reality is not a great thing for businesses that rely on those people. Whether its restaurants, coffee shops, or other companies that rely on foot traffic. These businesses were the first and hardest hit by the safer at home orders. Pivoting to takeout isn’t as easy when there isn’t anyone there to pick up the order. Inevitably, not all of these businesses are going to reopen as the economy restarts.

For those that do reopen, they will need to be careful not to scale up too quickly. Revenue will not be the same, and there will continue to be restrictions on the number of customers they can serve for a while. But, once those restrictions are gone, they can not assume that business will return to normal. There may be customers they previously relied on for lunch orders that never return to their office.

As a result, these businesses will need to focus on getting a more significant percentage of the people who are there. Make sure you communicate values and mission effectively, so people understand why they should support you. Serve the customers you do get extremely well, so they come back at a higher rate than before. Create touchpoints with your customers outside of the store that reminds them you are there. So, when people do go into the city, they need to come to your store.

What happens to office space?

One significant advantage listed for having a distributed workforce is that you can get rid of your office and save money on rent. That is great for the company, but terrible for the owners of the office space. For example, office space in Nashville has exploded with new construction and increased costs. So what happens to that office space if companies are reducing their office footprints? 

Companies and owners will need to get more creative in how they use their space. First, companies that keep their office space will need to provide more space for their employees so they can stay a safe distance apart from each other. That will eventually require companies that can’t work remotely to pick up some of the new office space becoming available. That will also allow owners to make these spaces more inviting, so companies will want to keep their offices open.

Finally, creating a flexible office environment or meeting space can create a new revenue opportunity for owners. Instead of outsourcing that process to companies like WeWork, take ownership and create new co-working spaces. Distributed companies like to have addresses and professional locations to meet with clients or investors. So, you may need to rethink how you sell your area to meet the needs of distributed companies instead of traditional offices.

Improve Infrastructure, Cheaply

All of these changes have an impact on infrastructure choices. Cities like Nashville have been debating about mass-transit solutions for years, and have mainly focused on solutions that do not disturb the current road infrastructure. What if we revamped our existing roads and turned them into more efficient and cleaner methods to get people into the city? Take main roads and turn them into light-rail as well as pedestrian and bike paths. These design change ideas are not new and have transformed cities like Bogotà Columbia. It is time for cities to recognize the impact they can have on the quality of life of their residents. They are cheaper and easier to enact than solutions that keep our current road system; it just requires us all to drive less. 

Now that we see the benefits to our environment of doing that, it is time to make these changes.

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