A lot of us will never wash our hands the old slapdash way again. Or routinely shake hands with strangers. Or go to work the old way.
Coronavirus, it turns out, is not just a vile pathogen. It’s also an accelerant of changes in human thinking and behavior. And while some of the changes seen during #StayatHomeMN are trivial and probably fleeting, others could be big enduring deals worth cheering at a time when reasons to cheer are in critically short supply.
Take the immersion in telework that plenty of Minnesota’s white-collar workers have been experiencing since before the start of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order on March 27.
What initially seemed to be a brief variation in workplace venue was last week looking increasingly like a prolonged or even permanent shift in what it means to “go” to work. So said many of the 170-plus Facebook users who responded to my recent request to share observations about how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing Minnesotans’ habits and ideas in ways that might last.
I kicked off the listmaking by predicting that Americans henceforth will understand that public health is integral to national defense, thinking that a flurry of comments about health care would follow. It did. (That’s another column, another day.) But to an extent that surprised me, so did forecasts that the share of Minnesotans working from home rather than going to an office will not return to pre-pandemic levels soon, if ever.
What’s more, the respondents said, it’s a change they welcome.
Lee Munnich said he isn’t surprised. Munnich might be called Minnesota’s telework policy guru. It’s a research specialty he honed during 25 years as director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Now retired as director, Munnich continues to conduct transportation policy research.
I asked him whether he thinks my Facebook responders are reading this moment right.
“This could change things significantly for telework,” Munnich said. “This will normalize people being able to work at home. As a result of these stay-at-home weeks, a lot more people will be familiar with the tools required to do so. Employers now have to think differently, plan their work differently — and a lot of them are finding that allowing employees to work from home can be very productive.”
Studies have long shown as much, Munnich said. He cited findings that teleworking employees often engage in work-related tasks during time that they otherwise would have spent commuting. They also work unburdened by the psychic and financial toll that commuting takes.
That’s a toll that COVID-19 has just made worse, particularly for those whose commutes involve mass transit. It may be a long time before people board a crowded bus or train again without wondering what contagions might be spreading therein.
Until now, despite MnDOT’s best efforts at promoting telework, it’s been tough to convince many corporate bosses that productivity won’t suffer if work is done away from the office, Munnich said. Now and for what could be many more months, skeptical bosses have a chance to see that phenomenon for themselves. He predicts they will like what they see.
There’s more to like if this forced adjustment becomes a lasting trend. The benefits for traffic congestion — Munnich’s specialty — and for air quality could be significant.
“We’ve learned from congestion-pricing efforts in cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore that if you can get a 10% drop in vehicles during rush hour, you can get a 30% reduction in congestion because of the way vehicle queuing works,” Munnich said.
It wouldn’t necessarily require 10% of today’s commuting workers to work at home all day to achieve that gain, he added. “Even if people spent some time at home, then went into their offices at a time other than rush hour, it would make a difference.”
Fewer vehicles on roads since mid-March is also bringing in a reduction in carbon emissions. That’s highly pertinent to the ongoing planetary crisis that will still be confronting humankind when today’s immediate planetary crisis eventually eases. Among my laments about the COVID pandemic is that it has distracted political attention from climate change at a crucial time. Several of my Facebook responders predicted that more confidence in science will persist among Americans when COVID-19 is history. May it be so.
More telework isn’t good news for everyone, of course. For Minnesota politicians who’ve insisted that there’s never a good time to raise taxes for transportation’s sake, a big shift to telework would hasten a day of hard choices. Roads will still deteriorate in Minnesota, even if fewer vehicles use them. They will still need repair and, if neglected, replacement.
State transportation planners have long foretold that Minnesota’s venerable highway funding workhorse, the per-gallon gas tax, is destined to dwindle as a source of revenue. They’ve been projecting declining receipts as all cars become more efficient, internal-combustion vehicles are replaced by electric ones, human drivers yield to robots and ubiquitous vehicle ownership gives way to car-sharing.
Those planners would be well-advised to add the implications of increased telework to their models for 2020 and beyond. Until a COVID vaccine is available, many Minnesota workers are likely to opt for working at home as a matter of precaution, and employers will be hard-pressed to refuse them the option. Today’s temporary arrangements could quickly become the new normal.
Nine years ago, Munnich headed a major study of how to shift Minnesota to a highway funding system based on miles driven, not gasoline purchased. He still holds that a “distance-based” means of assessing and collecting taxes for roads is coming. He may be right. Basing highway taxes on miles driven would be in keeping with the 100-year-old Minnesota idea that roads should be financed primarily with user fees.
But the coronavirus change agent is running fast now. It’s bending people’s thinking about who benefits from government services and who is responsible for keeping them functional. As Minnesotans ponder how the goods and services that are essential to surviving a pandemic will reach them, a new idea may take hold: Roads don’t just serve those who drive to work. They benefit everyone, and ought to be financed accordingly.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.