John Lyons is a transportation professional, sustainability leader, solar entrepreneur, and business developer with a passion for addressing the climate crisis and creating a clean energy future. He's been incorporating remote work into his career for decades, and he shares his insights on working remotely from both employee and employer perspectives. Plus, suggestions for translating what we've learned this year into a post-pandemic strategy for workplace adaptability moving forward.
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Welcome to cats cast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. This week, remote work, the new normal, or just a pandemic, pivot, or maybe happy hybrid will emerge. Once again, we're collaborating with sustainable Hudson Valley. We spoke with john Lyons, a transportation professional sustainability leader, solar entrepreneur, and business developer with a passion to address the climate crisis and create a clean energy future. john was president and CEO of Metro pool for almost two decades, whose mission was to reduce congestion and pollution. By eliminating the number of vehicle miles traveled and reducing the number of single occupancy trips. Metro pool worked through employers to reach commuters providing rideshare matching carpools and vanpools and telework now called remote work. In fact, we conducted this interview remotely. And we started with John's work at Metro pool. You know, I was president and CEO of Metropole which provided sustainable transportation in the Hudson Valley and actually expanded to Long Island and the city, the downstate project, we provided transportation services, primarily through employers to reach employees, and the services, basically carpooling vanpooling, telecommuting, which is relevant to this 17 years there and Metro pool has actually started delivering services in Hudson Valley in 1980. Ride matching was done on through an online platform, a lot of the work we did was connecting to the employers and to their people doing matching for carpools, vanpools, etc. How has online work changed, particularly in the last year? immensely? no comparison, telecommuting, as it used to be called remote work has been done for 3035 years, your IBM's and mastercards. And those types of companies have been doing remote work for a long, long time. But it never really grew. Everybody thought I was gonna grow and it didn't grow. Well. The pandemic, you know, forced us to all work remotely or many of us to work remotely. So it kind of turned everything upside down the the IBM's and mastercards. They adjusted pretty quickly, as you can imagine, because they already had policies and programs in place. The small and medium businesses or any business that didn't have a policy in place, had to scramble and come up with what they could. So it's been you know, baptism by fire for most companies. And it's been very enlightening for for all of us, what are we learning from this experience, the people who have already been working online in some way or another, and also the people for whom this is completely new? The big picture is I think we have an opportunity to rethink the workplace. I mean, a real big deal here. Partly because of the length of this, it's still going on, we've gone through kind of this phase of rising to the challenge immediately, people working hard and then kind of getting depressed about it. And and I think now we're with a little bit of experience we're looking for, okay, what can we do going forward? Because I think what a lot of companies have realized that things they didn't think they could do remotely, they can. Others realized that there are things that don't work as well, the original thinking, and for a lot of people in the transportation world, they have always thought of telework and remote working as a, you know, they would be a big impact on reducing cars and pollution and all that stuff. But people don't typically want to work for them remotely 100% of the time, and the data coming back from companies that there are good things and bad things about working remotely and and that some sort of hybrid seems to be the direction we're going. And you wrote about that. In a recent article for chronogram. You said that more than 70% of workers would like to see some kind of hybrid model moving forward. And what are the benefits that employees and employers separately or maybe they're the same benefits could gain from a hybrid arrangement? Yeah, and let me let me just clarify that 70% of those are those that could work remotely. Remember, there's a lot of people that can't hear, you know, the hospitals and our trades and assembly line. A lot of these you know, it's not for everybody about 50% they estimate have been able to work remotely With some effectiveness, so we're looking at the response of 70% was of those that were able to do it. We look at it from the employee side and the employer side. From the employee side, the pluses are job satisfaction, they think it's better to be able to work from home, work life balance, an obvious one being able to spend more time with the family, and most employees believe that their productivity is higher. On the downside for the employee isolation, after a few months of this isolation becomes an issue, collaboration or lack of collaboration, lack of opportunity, perceived lack of opportunity for collaboration. And one that most people don't think about is career advancement, the opportunity while in the office to be mentored or work under someone and learn the ropes, as well as relationships with regard to bosses and getting promoted and all that stuff. On the other side for the employers business continuity, and that's a huge liability for especially the larger businesses, some companies were able to continue, almost without a blip. But that is a big thing, and costly in most businesses, reduced operating costs, whether they be real or potential, interesting to the business side. And this is an interesting one, some businesses believe there was increased productivity, productivity ends up on the plus and the minus, with employers some feel, well, maybe the productivity wasn't there. And another big one that isn't always thought of but it was always part of our business and delivering transportation services, is recruiting and retention. If you can recruit from a larger capture area, you can get better talent. If people can work from home part of the time or maybe all the time, you're you can recruit from almost anywhere, or in some cases, you can make a situation where you can keep a good employee if you can allow them to work two, three days a week, on the downside difficulty managing a remote workforce. Most managers weren't used to this, it's different when you can look down the hall or pop in someone's office and see what they're doing. So managing a remote workforce is different. And it's an area we need to look at. And here's another one difficulty measuring and tracking performance. It's different when someone isn't in the office. And maybe we need to look at how we measure performance. Now, as you said, obviously, some jobs just simply can't be done from home if you're a nurse or a dentist or a shopkeeper or on a custodial staff. Those are things that have to be done in person for obvious reasons. But for even for those people who have jobs, or are getting into industries where some kind of hybrid model might make sense. There is another facet of sustainability, which is equity. Not everyone can work from home because they share a small apartment with a roommate or they don't have their own computer or unbelievably broadband internet is still not available in all places. So what things should we consider moving forward so that we don't leave people behind? I think there's a whole lot to consider. It's a very complex issue. Most of the people that were able to work remotely, are white collar, the demographics are they make more money, a lot of your service workers can't work from home and they're, they're less lesser paid. So there's a lot of things to look at without question. Even within the same company, some can work from home and some camp, it is considered by most people to be a benefit. So if some people are able to take advantage of a benefit, and others aren't, it raises a lot of concern. So it's a it's a difficult thing. And I don't know I look at it if we choose the profession we're in so some of this is by choice trades people, the carpenters and plumbers and electricians and all that stuff. They want to be climbing or banging the hammer on site so we can overdo the equity issue. I mean, I think we can overthink and we can overdo it. But it's very real companies, when they're developing their own policies are going to have to think it through internally, and each company is unique. And culture is very important. The ability to work remotely has been drawing people to this region, the Catskills in the Hudson Valley for many years now, those jobs have probably I would imagine been tied mostly to creative fields like writing or music creation, graphic design, even maybe architecture, things that can be done more easily from a home studio or set up. Have those demographics been changing due to the pandemic, it has changed and it is changing, and people would like it to change more. You can see that actually in real estate that the action in, you know, in the Catskills in the Hudson Valley since the pandemic is up real estate sales a way up. And that part of it is driven by people saying, Well, wait a minute, if I can work remotely, why not work? You know, in a place that I love that, you know, the quality of life is better the environment is that all of those things that draw people to this region? What if I could live there full time and commute maybe occasionally into the city or wherever there are some so around New York City, you can look at Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island, things are happening in all of those places, once people realize that they can be productive and management realize they productive from home. Those decisions are getting made a lot of people that own second homes up in the Hudson Valley in the Catskills. They have moved their operation. You know, they're fortunate enough to have a second home, but they have been operating up there. And I think it bodes well in from an economic development perspective in the valley that, can we encourage this? Can we make it easier for some of that transition? Can companies look at having maybe some remote operations that they don't all need to be in the big city or whatever? I think there's endless possibilities. What is the environmental impact ban? From more people working remotely? I would imagine that it's positive, because there's less cars on the road, and people are kind of in one place. Yeah. There's a lot of reporting, that says the impact has been tremendous clean air. You know, I don't know what the numbers are. I'm not gonna guess because I've read so many different ones, but it's substantial. And we all notice it day to day, you know, we noticed that there are more animals or birds or the air is cleaner and all this stuff. So I think there's a seriously direct impact when you're on the road. There's less congestion, well, congestion, pollution. I mean, they're all related. So I think we know it intuitively. I think the jury's still out on what the real numbers are. And what we've seen is, as things started to loosen up, a lot of people got right back on the road, there's an opportunity here to address that. And then just last week, the governor was pleading with New Yorkers who are commuting into the city, again, post Labor Day, to put faith in public transit, everyone's afraid to get on a bus or a train because of the pandemic. And so they're seeing a lot of traffic now as as cars start coming back into the city, because now people who normally would have taken mass transit, pre pandemic, are finding more safety in their own personal vehicle, no question about it. And that was, that was actually brought up very early in the pandemic, people started thinking about transit, and how that would have a negative effect that people will not get back on transit, they will drive their cars when when the time comes. So that that was predicted, it's happening. It's too bad, because we need public transit, some people live by it. I know that Metro North and all of the local bus companies are working really hard, and creating safe environments going above and beyond the call of duty. But, you know, we've been told for months not to be in public environments and whatnot. So it's gonna take a lot of work. And it's, it's a real problem. Where do you think this is all going to land in a year or two from now? There's been a dramatic online shift recently, what are some lasting effects that you can foresee sticking with us? Well, when I walked through the plusses and minuses, the benefits, and not so you know, you see that it's both employees and employers saw benefit. And they saw benefit above the challenge. When you think of it from the corporate side. If a company can give up real estate, and other operating costs, that's a very big thing. And if their employees are happier, their work life balance is better, and they're more productive. That seems like a pretty good win win. Right now. We're in investigative mode, at the corporate level and the individual level of, Okay, how could this be a long term change? And I think there's a lot of things that we can take advantage of this moment to help that along. There's a big difference between large and small companies in taking advantage of the situation. well resourced companies had contingency plans, but it's the small and medium that don't have the resources internally. They don't have the HR they don't have the tech department, the IT people. I think that a focus on small and medium businesses would be worth While and assistance with policies. I mean, the companies that had contingency plans and policies in advance of COVID-19 did way better, they went right into action. And then the others scrambled and made do with what they could and didn't like it. I mean, they're they resented Adam, also, they weren't prepared. Can we help prepare them? I think absolutely. And then finally, we didn't talk yet about your relationship with the sustainable Hudson Valley. So can you tell me how you're working with them, and how they're utilizing your knowledge from the industries that you're coming from. I'm a volunteer, as are most of us in there's a lot of, there's a tremendous amount of talent within sustainable Hudson Valley. And well, networked through a lot of resources are brought to bear by the people in the room, if you will, by the group of these days on zoom, or whatever. A lot of us believe in what we're doing. We know it takes a great deal of energy and effort and talent, to transition to have people think differently and wanna and sustainable Hudson Valley helps coordinate a lot of the effort, which is really helpful. We need to act, we need to do the research and the, you know, evaluation of what's happened. But we do not need to wait to take action. For that reason, let that happen. While we're doing things, I think, you know, if we right now could build this mentoring program and open it up to work with the chambers of commerce or the other business organizations throughout the valley. And through them offer trainings, access to people that know, help them put the dots together, the employers and the employees think there's value here. Let's take advantage of it now. Because what I learned in in the transportation with buses and carpools and whatnot, that once you form a habit, it's really hard to break. Well, we already broke the habit. I mean, we did the hardest piece already for the pandemic for us. But once people get back into driving back into the city, that's what they're gonna do. You know, six months, 10 months later, they're back in and that's what they did get up in the morning, they go, can we take advantage of this opportunity? And can we help the state on other levels transportation is a huge part of our carbon footprint. In the state of New York, it's estimated to be 47% of co2 emissions from transportation, here's an opportunity to maybe move the dial that to reduce 15 or 20% of commuting through remote work, and then you know, there's a huge potential here, and we need to take advantage of that. To learn more, follow sustainable Hudson Valley and check sustain hv.org for dates of upcoming webinars. Thanks to our sponsors, sustainable Hudson Valley and the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook, and sign up for a weekly email of local events at Central catskills.com. Katz cast is a production of silver Hello audio. Please don't forget to subscribe, and we'll see you again in two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai