Teleworking and air quality: Five questions for Thom Carter of UCAIR

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The Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) recently published the results of a survey on teleworking. The survey, which EDCUtah and other partner organizations helped to distribute, had 7,500 respondents. About 72 percent of respondents were employees, and 28 percent were executives. 

We caught up with Thom Carter, executive director of UCAIR, for more context and conversation on the notable findings of the survey.

What has been the effect of pandemic-related teleworking on Salt Lake’s air quality?
TC: There are many studies still in process, but one released by the University of Utah looked at air quality from the end of March into April. Over that 30-day period, about 40 percent of vehicles came off the road, mostly passenger vehicles. The study showed a 40 perce­­nt reduction in emissions. 

We know that 50 percent of pollutants come from mobile sources, and that March, April, and May are usually our best air months because the spring is wet and cool. In effect, the U of U study show an incremental reduction of healthy air to even healthier air. As studies by the U of U, Brigham Young University, and the Department of Environmental Quality continue on into the summer and fall, we’ll see if these trends continue. As the state moves to lower risk COVID categories, and more and more people go back into the office, emissions are starting to tick up again.

Manufacturing and homes continue to generate emissions, but our driving habits are responsible for 50 percent of bad air quality. As advocates and observers, this has been a once in a lifetime opportunity…well, we hope it’s just once in a lifetime…to demonstrate that if you take these cars off the road, it will have a positive impact on air quality. The quarantine has essentially controlled some of the variables to give us a crystal clear picture of what is happening. 

If we get to normalcy, will people continue to telework? 
Ours was a “pulse” survey, a moment in time, really. It ran from June 1 to June 14. About 55 percent of respondents in that timeframe were teleworking 100 percent of the time and the rest were teleworking one-quarter to three-quarters of the time.

We saw consistent responses across both populations, meaning management and employees.

Prior to the pandemic, we had problems selling the concept of telework to businesses. The response from management was typically, “I need to see my people. How will it affect productivity? Do we have computer and WiFi infrastructure in place?”

Well, attitudes have changed. Businesses have perceived no drop in productivity. 

And infrastructure got solved. Most businesses said they spent “some” money to help with home office set-up. 

I should note that only 11 percent of employees want to continue to telework every single day, but the vast majority are in favor of doing some teleworking on a weekly or month basis. So I’m optimistic people will continue to telework to some degree.

What are the benefits individuals and organizations are seeing from teleworking? Any concerns?
Let me talk about employees as a group first:

  • 92 percent saw benefits from not commuting daily.
  • 85 percent loved that telework saved them money, from gas to dry cleaning to fewer expensive lunches.
  • And 72 percent saw benefit in spending more time with family.

For employers as a group, the survey indicates that: 

  • 68 percent reported cost savings, with less spending on utilities, travel, meals, and so forth.
  • 61 percent actually reported improved employee attitudes and mental health even during this very difficult time.
  • And 56 percent felt there was an increase in productivity. Not just maintained but increased. 

The biggest concern – for both employers and employees – was that about 50 percent of respondents felt a limited connection with coworkers and a decreased sense of team.

What’s the biggest surprise for you in the survey?
I suppose the biggest surprise, and what’s most exciting, is how high a percentage of people would be willing to telework specifically just to improve air quality. In order to mitigate an incoming inversion, 94 percent of management and 93 percent of employees would engage in telework.

We can predict when an inversion is coming. As we look to the future, we can plan to slow how inversions build by taking cars off the road in the first couple of days leading up to one. You start to telework before you reach a red day.

We are working with companies to add these kind of policies to their daily operations. It’s a really positive opportunity now that we’re lowering all the three barriers to changing our collective behavior. To me, that’s been the silver lining of the tragic emergency we are all going through.

We are happy to sit down with any EDCUtah investor and put together a red air quality mitigation plan. We can help them to make their organization part of the air quality solution.

How are we going to adapt going forward?
The trend prior to the pandemic remains that area sources are going to overtake mobile sources in the next four years. So yes, we’re paying more attention to them sooner than we had anticipated. We’ve seen a reduction in commercial sources so residential sources are going to be the biggest area of focus. If you keep your home two degrees warmer in the summer or two degrees cooler in the winter, you can reduce your home’s emissions by two percent. The same goes for commercial spaces. So we’re looking at furnaces, HVAC, water heaters and so forth. It’s an aggregation of marginal gains.

We could also see a shift in how we’ll be using offices. We may be seeing open floor plans in offices around the Wasatch Front. Our future may be that we need six feet between workstations. Instead of leasing more space, companies may institute a rotating teleworking plan and “hoteling” desk space. There’s an opportunity for adaptation in the market.

Growth is a big issue in Utah. Part of that struggle involves our road system and increased traffic. Instead of two cars on the road every day, we can start looking at taking a car off the road every other day. The approach could extend I-15’s lifespan.

See a summary of survey results here: