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City and county consider long-term telecommuting strategy

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

When the city and county issued Stay Home-Work Safe orders on March 24, Austin became a community of teleworkers virtually overnight. Although there was minimal preparation for the change in work environment, the effort has been sufficiently successful to prompt both city and county leaders to consider extending work-from-home policies even after the crisis subsides.

In Travis County, commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Brigid Shea are collaborating on an initiative to encourage 75 percent of county employees to work from home at some point during the week.

In Austin, Council Member Alison Alter is bringing a resolution on May 7 to direct the city manager to update the city’s telecommuting policies. New policies will be based on the digital working experience under Covid-19 restrictions and incorporate more aggressive goals on the number of employees and the percentage of hours eligible for teleworking. Alter told the Austin Monitor there are not yet any specific goals.

County and city leaders both said telecommuting has turned out to be not only feasible but has benefited the environment and alleviated the perpetual traffic congestion that plagues Austin’s streets.

“We have this virtual experiment going, so we can see what can be done and see what the environmental consequences are,” Alter told the Monitor.

Commissioner Shea told the Monitor that vehicle emissions from employee commutes make up the largest portion of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions. By transitioning to a majority of county employees working at home, she said the benefits to traffic congestion and the environment have been profound.

Data from the Austin Transportation Department’s Mobility Management Center show that traffic at Austin’s major intersections has decreased by 60 percent at peak hours and 50 percent overall since stay-at-home orders were issued in March. In tandem with the reduction in vehicles on the road, the Capital Area Council of Governments reported data showing lower concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3) during the last two weeks of March than were observed in the same two weeks of March in 2017-2019.

In a memo from CAPCOG on April 24, the organization said it was uncertain whether the 50 percent reduction in traffic was due to telecommuting or other factors, such as the cancellation of large events, increased unemployment and fewer trips to local businesses.

However, both city and country leaders attribute the reduction in large part to the implementation of widespread telecommuting.

Despite its initial success, there is a consensus that transitioning to a long-term work-from-home policy will not be without its challenges.

“The county is really not ready to truly do telework because we really don’t have a robust system in place to quantify (and) verify everything that has to be done and still run the county,” Commissioner Daugherty told the Monitor.

Council Member Alter similarly said, “There are a lot of challenging pieces of this experiment.” Nevertheless, she said the challenges should not deter the city from pushing for aggressive telecommuting goals, particularly in light of such a strategy’s ability to contribute to the city’s carbon-neutral goals. The city is aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Daugherty said, “I am keen on 75 percent. I’m keen on really trying to do telecommuting by the overwhelming majority (of county employees).”

However, both he and Shea cautioned that working from home is not an option for all county staff. For example, jailers, geographic information system (GIS) staff, community center staff and maintenance crews need to be physically present at a work site in order to perform their jobs. Those exceptions will be factored into the county’s overarching strategy.

Still, Daugherty said the first step is to aim for a goal and then iron out the strategy, including the costs required to achieve that goal. “If we could really figure out a way to do all this stuff: Traffic, done,” he said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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