LOS ANGELES — As LA, and the rest of the world, shifted to telecommuting during the pandemic, there was a surprising side effect. Some workers got more done. A global survey that included 830 LA employees working from home during COVID found that Angelenos spent about 2% more time doing productive work. Those with commutes of 40 minutes or longer showed the most gains.
“People with longer commutes prior to COVID report being more productive,” said Joseph Sherlock, senior researcher with the Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight, which partnered with the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the study. The two organizations are following up on that data this month with a telework research pilot involving 1,500 Metro employees, many of whom have expressed a desire to continue working from home 60% of the time once restrictions are lifted.
They are not alone. Half of the country’s employed adults currently telecommute and are likely to continue doing so in the near term, according to the Brookings Institution. That has major implications for transit agencies throughout the country, including Metro, which saw ridership plummet 90% at the pandemic’s outset and continues to struggle with getting riders to return.
With a service area of 1,433 square miles, Metro is the country’s second largest transit agency, but it does not exist for the sole purpose of providing bus and train transportation. Since re-envisioning itself as a mobility provider through its Vision 2028 Strategic Plan, it is just as interested in promoting alternative means of getting around, such as bicycles and carpools — or not getting around at all, like staying home to work.
“The first time I mentioned at a leadership meeting that we should be trying to encourage people to telecommute, people said, ‘Won’t that mean they’ll telecommute instead of riding buses and trains?’” said Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer for Metro. “The perspective we’ve taken is the vast majority of trips that people are taking in this county are people alone in cars. People are asking us to discourage that.”
About 75% of commuter trips, and 60% of all trips, are driven alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
When voters approved the permanent sales tax increase to expand public transit known as Measure M in 2016, “it’s not because they wanted to see more people riding public transit,” Schank said. “They wouldn’t mind that, but what they want to see is less traffic and less pollution and more equitable solutions.”
Encouraging telecommuting is one way to achieve a seemingly counterintuitive goal for a transit agency.
Metro’s telework research pilot program is designed to figure out if working from home can reduce traffic and the number of trips people are taking in single-occupancy vehicles. But teleworking will only have that desired effect on traffic if people are happy and productive while telecommuting.
Metro’s first remote working study with the Duke Center was part of a larger survey conducted in 88 countries and 44 states that looked at the factors influencing an individual’s success at working from home.
“Lots of factors predict your happiness and productivity,” Sherlock said, adding that a good home office environment that included a desk and a second screen was helpful, as was having access to nature and an employer that supports remote work.
Lower productivity resulted from several factors, including workers with children under the age of five who lacked child care, a lack of technology resources, a lack of human interaction and low self-control.
“There’s this whole ecosystem around you that predicts success while working from home or not,” said Sherlock, whose survey asked people about their remote working set up to determine what factors helped them do well or held them back. “There’s a very clear link between self-control and productivity and happiness. People who have a better ability to stay on task do better.”
As part of the new telework pilot, Metro is investigating strategies to promote work-life balance, home-office redesign, task management, happiness challenges and virtual connections. Optimizing the telework experience to help people be more productive “could be a solution for traffic,” said Avital Shavit, senior manager for Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
The trick is determining which incentives will motivate that sort of behavioral change. Among the ideas Metro might experiment with: real-time personalized trip planning that could suggest bicycling when the weather is warm or a discount for carpooling.
“Telework is something we were thinking about prior to the pandemic because Metro wants to do more than just encourage people to take public transit,” said Shavit. “We want to encourage better mobility, better accessibility, and improve congestion, environmental and equity outcomes.”
Metro is using 1,500 of its employees as the basis of its research but is looking to partner with other employers that have at least 1,000 staff in LA County to bolster its findings.
Metro hopes to launch a commuter challenge program this summer, and a program that incentivizes transportation other than driving alone in the fall.