Workers in South Carolina have received a crash course in telecommuting over the past week, thanks to calls for social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Remote work has presented itself as one of the few options for companies during the pandemic. While no one's in favor of the scenario that got us here, traffic, environmental, and mental health experts say working from home may have some benefits to offer.
There are approximately 375,000 workers in the Charleston area, according to Charleston County. Data compiled by the Charleston Regional Data Center shows in 2018 over 150,000 people were employed in professional business, health services, and government.
Each of these fields has used telecommuting in some capacity recently to continue functioning; the city government holds some meetings over the phone, while the Medical University of South Carolina is providing virtual COVID-19 screenings. Schools have also moved to online classes while campuses are shut down for an indefinite period.
Of course, increased telecommuting means fewer traffic snarls during morning and afternoon drive times. Motorists have generally been greeted by fewer cars as the humans who drive them heed social distancing guidance. Pete Poore, director of communications for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, says statewide traffic has dropped 20-35 percent in the past week compared to the last year.
"Under normal circumstances, telecommuting is one of several tactics, such as flextime, staggered shifts, and compressed work weeks, that help improve traffic conditions," says Daniel Brock, a representative for Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. "Carpools, van pools, and public transportation all can play a role in mitigating congestion."
"The ongoing and unfortunate situation related to coronavirus is offering a unique and extreme case study in [telecommuting], but that is no one's primary focus at the moment," Brock concedes. "Right now, telecommuting is a needed public safety measure as opposed to a convenience."
There is a traffic collision in South Carolina every 3.7 minutes, according to 2017 data, the latest available from the state Department of Public Safety.
But lower traffic volume has impacts that reach beyond convenience. Local environmental advocates note that telecommuting can also decrease carbon emissions and waste production. This side effect has recently been seen in China where there has been a reported decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. In Italy, which has seen some of the highest figures of coronavirus cases, waters in the Grand Canal in Venice have turned clear as the normally bustling waterways are free of boats.
MUSC professor of psychiatry Christopher Pelic says, while it may depend on the person, there may be mental health benefits to working from home, as well.
The pros, Pelic says, include better focus and less anxiety over commuting. Some people, though, may become overwhelmed by the lack of boundaries between professional and home lives and a possible sense of isolation.
Because there are potential positive and negative impacts on mental health, Pelic says there needs to be a balance. He encourages telecommuters in a normal scenario to head into the office for some time during the week if possible and to have a designated work space in their homes. "Some do really well in that environment and others need a different level of structure," he says.
Needless to say, this is a stressful time for many people and there are certain things that can help manage stress while telecommuting. Pelic recommends "getting a little bit of control back by setting up a nice, pleasant, safe, quiet environment and taking breaks, eating lunch, making sure you check in with your supervisor."
The Center for Disease Control has a list of ways to manage anxiety during the pandemic, including the occasional break from social media and news stories about the disease, making time for yourself, and eating well.
People with pre-existing mental health conditions are recommended to continue their treatment and stay alert to any new or worsening symptoms.