Working from home, for now
The front doors are closed at Half Moon Bay City Hall, and many municipal employees continue to work from home during the coronavirus crisis. Adam Pardee / Review

In June, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors asked employers like Facebook to keep some workers at home permanently “to protect and advance environmental air quality and ease traffic congestion in San Mateo County.” The county has made no move to practice what it preaches, however.

San Mateo County is not looking to keep any employees home longer than necessary to save on costs or environmental impacts, nor have officials collected data about the costs or savings associated with government offices sitting empty.

The idea of working from home to save money for both employers and employees has gained traction after the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies, governments and schools to move online. Many essential workers like nurses and grocery store clerks still report to work as normal, but even small businesses like

florists and car repair shops, have moved some business online. Many government employees, too, have been working from home due to the pandemic.

While so many businesses have suffered or been forced to shut down due to local lockdowns, permanent work from home can be a cost-saving opportunity for others, particularly for cash-strapped governments looking for room in their budgets.

Late last month, Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister told Congress that government agencies could save $11 billion annually if federal employees worked from home half the time. Most of the saved money comes from reducing the need to pay for office space and expensive renovations for government buildings. Government employees could also benefit by saving money on commuting and professional clothing.

But it’s not just money that could be saved; the planet could benefit, too.

At the June meeting, Supervisor David Canepa asked that offices remain closed for environmental reasons, citing dramatic reductions in traffic and improvements in air quality in the county due to decreases in commuting since the start of the pandemic. Board President Warren Slocum said the county should take the lead in the effort, but according to Chief Communications Officer Michelle Durand, the county has not yet considered if it will keep some employees home once the pandemic is over.

“It’s important that San Mateo County, that we demonstrate leadership on this issue, and that we set a goal for ourselves,” Slocum said. “… I’d like to see us identify a concrete goal and then work towards that for our own workforce so we can model the behaviors that we want from others.”

Half Moon Bay city officials haven’t considered permanent work from home either, Communications Director Jessica Blair said. She wasn’t able to provide details on the effects of city staff’s pivot to remote work.

“... We have not had discussions about permanent work from home,” Blair wrote in an email to the Review. “We plan on eventually being mostly back in the office once it’s safe to do so.”

Right now, Durand said, the county is focused on responding to the current pandemic conditions, during which an average of 43 percent of their employees are working from home. She said county officials left it up to individual departments to determine who would be able to continue their duties remotely.

But working from home doesn’t necessarily save money, a 2018 Rand Corporation analysis found. Telework infrastructure isn’t cheap, and while employers work from home, companies lose direct access and supervision of their employees, which some say reduces productivity. Then, there’s also the risk of losing proprietary information like highly sensitive company or government information that’s less secure at home.

While productivity hasn’t been an issue for county employees, Durand said, there are some costs associated with helping set up home offices as well as implementing sanitization and safety measures on campus. Plus, COB3, the county’s brand-new $500 million Redwood City building, which was constructed in part to save on maintenance and energy costs, now stands half-empty.

Being an employee asked to work from home comes at a cost too, the Rand analysis found. Many of the costs of maintaining a home office may fall on employees, not to mention the difficulty of separating work from leisure when there’s no physical boundary between the two. In the long term, though, it may be worth it for some employees: Eliminating long commutes, some experts say, while certainly beneficial for air quality, traffic and the environment, can also be good for mental and physical health.

Durand said for many of these reasons, prior to the pandemic, County Manager Mike Callagy had been working on expanding work-from-home options for county employees, an effort that was accelerated due to necessity.

“It was amazing to me how quickly that priority, which might have taken months of discussion and logistics, how quickly the county was able to pivot to get the technology in place,” Durand said. 

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