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Telecommuting's Small Carbon Footprint

The concept of open work is a relatively new one for me. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be sending email to my staff during half-time at my daughter's soccer game, videoconferencing via the internet with a colleague in London from our office in Boston, and writing a blog post on the benefits of working remotely from my couch at home, I would have told you that you were crazy. And it makes me wonder--are we really maximizing the impact of open work as a strategy to combat rising energy use, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and the greater climate change crisis?
by Mindy S. LubberHarvard Business Review Posted on Aug 26, 2008

The concept of open work is a relatively new one for me. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be sending email to my staff during half-time at my daughter's soccer game, videoconferencing via the internet with a colleague in London from our office in Boston, and writing a blog post on the benefits of working remotely from my couch at home, I would have told you that you were crazy.

It is clear to all of us that we are now living in a world different from one that any other generation has worked in: a world where I panic if I leave the house without my BlackBerry and see my laptop as an extension of myself. Yet the silver lining to being connected 24/7 is that it not only enables me to get my work done from anywhere--it allows me to avoid buying $4-a-gallon gasoline or taking another flight to the U.K., benefiting both the environment and my wallet.

And it makes me wonder--are we really maximizing the impact of open work as a strategy to combat rising energy use, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and the greater climate change crisis? In my home state of Massachusetts, more than 3 million people commute by car each day--74 percent of those commuters driving alone. Every year, urban commuters in the U.S. waste 2.9 billion gallons of fuel idling in traffic--the equivalent of 58 fully-loaded supertanker ships.

New emerging technologies have extended, if not dissolved, the boundaries of the corporate office and have forever altered the concept of what it means to be a 9 to 5 employee working from your desk. The number of corporate employees in the United States open working in 2007 is expected to be 12.4 million, nearly double what it was five years ago. In the current global economy, we can now easily envision someone joining a business call from the beach in San Diego, a coffee shop in New York, and a corporate boardroom in Tokyo--with open work, the flexibility is limitless and corporations around the world are cashing in on the savings.

Sun Microsystems is on the leading edge of this rising trend.  Nearly half of the software company's 40,000 employees work from home or in a flexible office up to two days a week. The program is allowing Sun to attract and retain the best talent from around the world--while reducing its office space by one sixth. Participants report that their productivity has increased by a third, in part because they have shaved their commuting time by 104 hours a year. (Participants are also saving $870 a year in gasoline costs.) For 2007, the program accomplished the equivalent of removing more than 10,000 cars from the road and eliminating 29,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. The California company also saved $68 million in real estate costs. Now that is real money.

The Center for Biological Diversity is also using open work to its advantage. The environmental group's headquarters is located in Arizona, yet only a third of their 65 employees actually live in the state. Using open work as a hiring strategy enables the center to hire great talent that may otherwise opt to work elsewhere; many of its lawyers, for example, live in the Bay Area. In a world where funds are tight and the opportunities are endless, open work offers a money-saving, low-impact solution.

Of course, open work programs present numerous challenges that companies must be mindful of before taking the leap.

A few tips:

  • Personal contact: Do not foresake regular face-to-face meetings; the intrinsic trust of meeting in person is hard to replace and should never be sacrificed in open work programs.
  • Utilize technology: If face-to-face meetings are not always possible, teleconferencing tools should be used. New tools like iChat and Skype and computers with embedded webcams make teleconferencing much more user-friendly and inexpensive to setup and use. Higher-end systems are likewise getting more and more popular and effective everyday.
  • Support systems: Provide employees with the necessary equipment to make communication as seamless and efficient as possible. At Sun, most employees use a SunRay, an ultra energy efficient, virtualized desktop that draws only 4 watts of electricity - as much as the average night light. Employees report to work through a secure technology-enabled ID card, and their files are stored on a central server rather than an individual PC.

So what about you? In what situations does open work fit best? How has your company been able to leverage new technologies to increase connections without ending up with just more frequent-flier miles?

For me, technology still retains many mysteries and pitfalls - but if it can enable me to get my work done, lower my impact on the environment, and allow me to take in my daughter's soccer game, I am on board. Even if it does require me to constantly ask my 13-year-old how exactly you go about returning a text message.

Mindy Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading coalition of investors and environmental groups working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.  
Mindy S. Lubber

Read the post at Harvard Business Review

Meet the Expert

Mindy S. Lubber JD, MBA

Mindy S. Lubber is the president of Ceres and a founding board member of the organization. She also directs Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a group of 100 institutional investors managing nearly $10 trillion in assets focused on the business risks and opportunities of climate change. Mindy regularly speaks about corporate and investor sustainability issues to high-level leaders at the New York Stock Exchange, United Nations, World Economic Forum, Clinton Global Initiative, American Accounting Association, American Bar Association and more than 100 Fortune 500 firms. She has led negotiating teams of investors, NGOs and Fortune 500 company CEOs who have taken far-reaching positions on corporate practices to minimize carbon emissions, water use and other environmental impacts. She has briefed powerful corporate boards, from Nike to American Electric Power, on how climate change affects shareholder value.

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