UCSF Should Standardize Remote Work Rules

Friday, April 29, 2022

At the height of the COVID pandemic, amongst the tragic and frustrating challenges we collectively faced, one benefit emerged: a sudden lack of traffic on our usually clogged Bay Area freeways.

With the open roads came clearer skies. Data from these months show a 40% reduction in PM2.5 air pollution worldwide.

The UN Climate Report released earlier this month outlines the sobering details of the current state of the climate crisis. Without drastic action to curb carbon emissions, UN Secretary António Guterres warns of looming “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

The report shows that, despite reductions promised by most nations, carbon emissions have increased since 2010. Reducing auto emissions is a crucial step to address the climate crisis.

I’ve worked as a nurse at UCSF for nearly two decades and am currently a master’s student. Like many in the UCSF community, I live outside of SF and commute. I’ve taken steps to mitigate the impact of this commute by forming carpool groups and buying an electric car.

Due to the woeful lack of public transit in the North Bay, there is no option for those on a nurse’s schedule. Despite these steps, I’m well aware of my impact every time I make the trek to campus on Interstate 101, which now carries nearly as much traffic as in pre-pandemic years.

UCSF touts its commuter and transportation statistics as some of the best in the Bay Area. But the numbers are discouraging: at least 25% of the 22,000 who come to campus weekly arrive to work or school alone in a car, and less than 20% regularly utilize public transit.

Regardless of how commuters arrive to campus, each of us increases our carbon footprint by traveling, parking, occupying electrified buildings, and using resources to work through the day.

Clinical staff are clearly essential, but many learners and non-clinical staff can work from home full or part time to mitigate these impacts.

The first two quarters of my cohort’s Health Policy Master’s program were strictly online. The occasional tech challenges were a small price to pay for the freedom from the burdens of commuting. This quarter, we have resumed fully in person learning.

While it’s an enjoyable change to meet classmates and professors in person, the reality of the coursework is that a PowerPoint lecture or theory discussion is not significantly different whether done in a classroom or at the kitchen table.

For non-clinical classes, the environmental impact of keeping commuters at home is well worth a permanent online or hybrid model.

Many of the challenges of working and learning remotely during the pandemic stemmed from the sudden change.

We were forced to create online environments from scratch without time to prepare. Now we can take the lessons learned, leverage the best technology, and build a supportive online learning and work environment that reduces commuting dramatically.

Even a 50% remote option could significantly improve our carbon footprint while maintaining the benefits of in person experience.

Beyond the reduced environmental impact, hybrid work and learning expands opportunities to those who can’t afford to live in San Francisco or have family or work commitments that prohibit commuting.

The costs of tolls, parking, childcare, and transport are prohibitive for many potential employees and students. Improving polices to support remote work will increase access to opportunities at UCSF for the wider Bay Area community.

The current UCSF policy on remote learning allows each division and department to make individual choices and is inconsistent even within individual colleges and offices.

A supportive and standardized model that emphasizes remote or hybrid options whenever possible is needed to establish these practices and improve them, rather than leaving them up to individual preference.

The climate crisis will require paradigm shifts for all of us. Where we live, what we eat, how we work, and our consumer habits all will be impacted.

We can make choices now to help prevent the most catastrophic impacts or be forced to modify our behavior as our environment becomes less and less habitable.

As one of the nation’s most trusted academic institutions, UCSF should embrace the most progressive and impactful path possible toward carbon neutrality in every policy.

We are in a time when the comfortable and traditional must be rapidly modified to achieve a livable future.

Kate Farley is a Nursing Supervisor at UCSF BCH Mission Bay and a master’s student in the School of Nursing.

Bay Area Traffic by Alec MacDonald