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The failed attempt to make Silicon Valley work from home

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 24 November 2020, 10:45 am

With a pandemic raging and a desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it probably seemed like a good idea to mandate working from home.

But the Bay Area authorities which govern a host of districts around San Francisco that are home to some of Silicon Valley's best-known tech companies and their workers, this week ditched a plan to require employers of more than 25 people to have their employees work from home 60% of the week.

The mass telecommuting proposal from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission was part of the Plan Bay Area 2050, which was approved in a 12-1 vote by Bay Area governments in September. But the requirement that companies organise their workers so that they work from home the majority of the time sparked a backlash among residents, employers and transport providers alike.

"The work-from-home mandate was the wrong solution and represented excessive regulatory overreach," said Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman. 

"The old policy would have hurt the vitality of important business and employment centres, decimated our public transit systems and discouraged new businesses from coming to the Bay Area. Bay Area residents and businesses need flexibility," he added.

While working form home remains the default position for much of the tech workforce in Silicon Valley as employers take a precautionary approach to dealing with Covid-19, town planners fear a return to clogged freeways once business returns to normal.

Emissions cuts a priority

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has a goal of reducing emissions from transport in the Bay Area by 19% by 2035. It sees telecommuting as a path to reducing those emissions and in September it backed up its case for mandated telecommuting with research that showed the bay Area, largely due to its high proportion of tech workers, was the best-suited region in California to remote work. 

But it also revealed racial disparities when it came to remote work. With 51% of white workers were found to be able to work from home in the Bay Area, only 33% of Black employees and 30% of Hispanics had the same opportunity.

While the 60% mandate has been withdrawn, the MTC has approved a new one that will require businesses with 50 or more employees to limit the number of employees driving to work to 40% by 2035.

The rest will have to take public transport, bike, walk - or telecommute. The proposal excludes agricultural workers and would need approval from the state legislature.

The backlash against the telecommuting mandate shows the challenges all major urban areas face in trying to curb emissions from transport. While working form home at least part of the week appears to be the norm now for many Kiwis following the pandemic, government and business leaders have also urge them to head back to the office to prevent the hollowing out of city centres where retailers and commercial property owners face dwindling business.


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