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Will Telework Catch on Now That We’ve Tried It?

Will the pandemic change how our region works? A regional survey by the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC)Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC), City of Santa CruzMonterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) and San Benito Council of Governments (SBCOG) aims to answer how Monterey Bay employers are approaching telework in practice and policy so as to better assist employers in the future.

The benefits of telework are many: Fewer cars on the road means less greenhouse gas emissions and less traffic congestion. A flexible work arrangement can be an attractive selling point for employers, according to an analysis by the Bookings Institution, and result in more productive workers with lower turnover.

Feasibility for Monterey County, where so many jobs center around the county’s hospitality and agriculture industries, is less clear, says Ariana Green, Senior Transportation Planner for the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), which worked with MBEP on developing the survey. Partnering with them are Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, San Benito Council of Governments, and the City of Santa Cruz.

Prior to the pandemic, TAMC was already promoting telework as one option of Go831, its smart commute program designed to reduce the numbers of vehicles on the road and in parking lots during busy travel times.

“Go831 provides support to employers to help them set up their own smart commute programs for their employees. We provide tools and staff support to help them get going and confident. The prominence of telework in the response to the coronavirus threat is a reminder that the technology can help employers manage other risks as well,”  according to the Brookings Institution report.

Last year, TAMC was one of several transportation agencies that collaborated on a webinar series on telework best practices, designed to help shape and enhance telework policies and programs. Now as vaccination numbers rise and restrictions ease, many uncertainties remain: Has the experience of working from home changed employers’ perceptions about teleworking?

“Since the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of forced teleworking, which is good for air quality, but we realize that a lot of employees and employers were not prepared for teleworking full time,” said Green.

The survey will target San Benito, Santa Cruz, and Monterey County employers and is designed to gauge their experiences with telework, the benefits and challenges they’ve encountered, and whether they had telework policies pre-COVID.

“Basically, what we’re trying to get at is, what types of tools and resources do employers need to support teleworking even after it’s safe for employees to return to an office?”

Data about teleworking patterns in Monterey Bay would be useful not only to transportation planners but also to the region’s employers and its workforce.

Up to now, there hasn’t been much data available on how many companies locally offer teleworking options or have policies in place to support it, and even how many workers locally have worked from home as a result of the pandemic. Having a more accurate picture of what those policies and practices look like in the region could help planners and employers tailor tools and resources to fit those particular needs.

“Hospitality has a lot more workers who need to be on a physical site, the same with hospitals and healthcare workers,” said Green. “Because our economy is so driven in large part by visitors and tourism, maybe we will have less teleworking than most counties.” Green said many employers contacted prior to the pandemic had previously expressed some degree of reluctance.

“Some of the things that we’ve heard were that employers weren’t necessarily set up with their technology and equipment for employees to work from home, so a lot of reluctance stems from that, and also because of managers not knowing how to manage teleworkers, or not having a (telework) policy.”

Those gaps in knowledge and experience are part of what the survey hopes to address.

“It’s hard to try new things,” says Green. “We are assuming that employers will be open to it now, having done it for a year. But part of the survey’s aim is getting some of those numbers.”