Pollution is down. Good. Let’s keep it that way!

By : |March 23, 2020 0

After 9/11, air travel came to a standstill and air pollution drastically dropped. The effects of those clear skies were studied for years to come. However, the way the world has reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic recently, it seems that as far as the environment is concerned, it’s like “9/11 clear skies” on steroids. Air travel. Domestic travel. Train travel. Local commute… It’s all down to unprecedented levels in the modern era.

The Corona effect: The air quality across the world, including in Indian metros, has been consistently improving over the past week following partial shutdowns in the wake of Covid-19. Delhi-NCR, infamous for its dangerous levels of air pollution, saw its air quality index (AQI) fall from ‘poor’ (201-300) to ‘moderate’ (101-200) and continues to improve, according to the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR).

IT capital Bengaluru too saw its AQI improve even more to ‘satisfactory’ (0-50) in areas notorious for endless traffic snarls, such as Silk Board, over the past few days, according to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. Satellite data over China and Italy, two countries worst-affected by Covid-19 and implementing strict isolation measures – has shown a significant drop in air pollution, especially levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), chiefly emitted by vehicles and industrial plants.

Driven by tech: The decline in industrial activity will have far-reaching economic consequences, but driven by information technology (IT), non-industrial activity continues despite the inevitable glitches. So is it, in fact, possible to minimize the daily commutes of workers who can – and are – doing their jobs without going to their offices every day?

Off these quiet roads, employees are trying to make sure their companies can continue with business as usual. The transition is far from easy, but the technology helps. Some companies are putting together FAQs and toolkits to work from home – tips, tricks, links to applications, do’s and don’ts. It’s a whole new way of working and might well be around for a while.

For many large companies, remote working is only a part of their business continuity plan (BCP) – a way of ensuring they continue their work for their clients with minimal disruption. But most current BCPs are focused on ‘cyber’ attacks, physical attacks, or natural disasters, and ensuring that other sites can take over and continue the work without losing data or access. It is rare for BCPs to include alternatives that take into account a scenario where a large chunk of the population is affected or at-risk for a prolonged amount of time. The nature and consequences of the current situation are unprecedented.

Surge in demand: Equipment leasing companies report a surge in the demand for laptops as companies scramble to implement new guidelines and enable their employees to work outside of designated offshore development centres (ODCs).
With the commoditization of the internet in a ‘post-Jio’ world, data plans are a lot more affordable– at least for personal use.

However, a large number of users now being told to work from home are young working professionals, whose internet plans usually cover only their daily quota of entertainment and social media and are not necessarily suited for work on a sustained basis.

While some companies are providing allowances to augment these plans, others are issuing data cards and Wi-Fi dongles. Again, many large companies are trying to source thousands of these to issue to staff that is now working remotely. Demand has risen and prices have followed suit.

Preventing a collapse: But broadband is just the first step. While most applications and files can be accessed over the internet, access to restricted files and services can only happen over VPN, which allows remote yet secure access. So companies have been stress-testing their IT infrastructure to ensure their VPNs don’t collapse under the load of their entire staff logging in remotely.

Let’s assume that everybody has a device to work on and adequate connectivity. Once everyone is online, the challenge is actually getting work done by collaborating remotely. WFH often meant a light day at work, answering essential emails and calls and then catching up with actual deliverables once you got back to the office. That is no longer the case. Employees are expected to deliver the goods on a daily basis, but managers too need to re-align themselves to the ‘new normal’.

Face-to-face contact: Getting real work done has often depended on relationships at the workplace. Face-to-face meetings within and across teams, informal chats, even watercooler gossip, not to mention the random hi-hellos that create and maintain these relationships in the first place.

It’s not easy, even for teams who have worked together for a couple of years, to suddenly do everything by phone or Skype or WhatsApp. Yes, video calls are growing in popularity, but scheduling them is still more effort than just gathering a team together on a floor and just getting on with it.

Companies are encouraging video calls because we still need to ‘see’ each other to make a discussion more productive, but often simply to stay in touch. Video calls are also a lot more engaging than the much-maligned conference calls where a lot of the time is spent identifying yourself every time you speak, repeating yourself because someone else spoke at the same time, apologizing for that, someone dropping off and missing key parts of a discussion and telling people to go on mute because, well, they’re breathing too hard.

Zooming on: Video calls are also putting a face to a name is acquiring a new urgency. Zoom, the video-conferencing solution that took Wall Street by storm when it listed in 2019, has seen its stock soar even amid the carnage in the stock markets. Zoom is the flavor of the season, even as older options like Skype for Business are around and Microsoft adds Zoom-like features to Microsoft Teams. Cisco is already adding features to the free version of its Webex and Google has said it is providing free access to Hangouts Meet videoconferencing for a large segment of its customers.

When it comes to files and plans and spreadsheets, online collaboration means getting an entire team to add their comments simultaneously, and not by turn. Microsoft’s Office 365 has provided this ability for a few years now (and Google’s Docs, etc. always had it) but is likely being used more actively now than ever before. Providers across the board are lifting limits on their free versions, trying to make life easier for students and teachers.

Those who have used collaboration apps like Slack and Trello may find the transition a little smoother, leveraging them as more than a means of communication and tracking projects. Many who haven’t, find them cumbersome and wonder why they can’t work the old-fashioned way – over email. The truth is that email is poised to become a four-letter word. At work, it is fast becoming the 21st century-equivalent of the dreaded circular. In personal life, it is already the collector of the online version of junk mail. The lockdown will only serve to make it even more unpopular.

The bottom line is this. Technology has given us the tools to work remotely while being productive. Name a need and there is probably an app out there for it. All that’s left to do is for people to learn how to use them. And how to make them part of our current existence without friction. That’s easier said than done, but are they even trying?

If the lockdown lasts long enough, they won’t have a choice. And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have more frequent occurrences of ‘satisfactory’ to ‘moderate’ air quality in our metros and less traffic on the roads.

An annual WFH fortnight: Despite all the hardship, doom and gloom, it really looks like the world will be able to cope. Can we finally convert the jobs that can be WFHed permanently? Can we bring down our carbon imprint with less commute and less domestic and international travel? Conditions are already showing that we can do much more with less. Can we have a WFH fortnight every year, where we pledge to use minimum resources and bring down our carbon imprint? The human race is known to find opportunity in every tragedy and Covid-19 should prove no different.

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