Sustainable transport | Alternatives to commuting | Teleworking

Telecommuting or telework is a work arrangement in which employees do not commute to a central place of work. A person who telecommutes is known as a telecommuter or teleworker. Many telecommuters work from home, while others, sometimes called nomad workers use mobile telecommunications technology to work from coffee shops or other locations. According to a Reuters poll, approximately “one in five workers around the globe, particularly employees in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, telecommute frequently and nearly 10 percent work from home every day …”. According to the UK Labour Force Survey, there are 2.2 million teleworkers in the UK – about 7.4% of the workforce.

In the US, telecommuting gained ground in 1996 after the Clean Air Act was adopted with the expectation of reducing carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone levels by 25 percent. The act required companies with over 100 employees to encourage car pools, public transportation, shortened workweeks, and telecommuting. In the UK, British Telecom was one of the pioneers. It began a telework scheme in 1986, and now has 15,000 homeworkers out of 92,000 employees. The company argues that homeworkers save it an average of £6,000 a year each, are 20% more productive and take fewer sick days.

According to a research by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change by 2050 telecommunications will replaces: 40% of business travel, 16% of commuting trips (assuming 40% of the commuters telework for two days every week) and 40% of shopping trips. The outcome may be viewed as optimistic as they assumed that all the car mileage is saved, whereas the car may be used by others in the household or the telecommuter may use it for additional trips.

The assumption that teleworking would lead to a reduction in carbon emission is based on the fact that the majority of employees go to work with a private car. This increase therefore a lot the individual carbon emissions. A study by the UK Department of Transport concluded that teleworking could reduce UK car commuting trips by 3-12% (1). According to the Telework Reserch Network, just a day a week of telecommuting could save 423,000 tons of greenhouse gas, the equivalent of taking 77,000 cars off the road for a year. An other example is the US Patent Office’s telework program in 2007 (consisting of 3,609 home workers), which helped to save over 613,000 gallons of gas, prevent 9,600 tons of CO2 emissions, and save over $1.8 million annually in fuel costs.

Homeworking and carbon reduction – the evidence [Peter James, Professor of Environmental Management, Bradford University and Co-Director, SustainIT] (2)

  • Homeworking has a direct and measurable impact on carbon from activities such as the use of buildings, use of technology and travel
  • There remains some concern that possible ‘rebound’ carbon impacts may eliminate the benefits of home-based working – but these tend to be exaggerated and are mostly not supported by the evidence
  • Data from UK and European studies show significant net carbon savings from reduced travel amongst home-based workers
  • Surveys show that homeworkers have greater uptake of local services
  • Travel reduction issues are now reasonably understood and resolved – the key area of research now is impacts on home and work energy
  • Domestic dwellings consume considerably less energy per square metre than air conditioned offices
  • Measured productivity and performance improvements from homeworkers provide a form of ‘clean economic wealth’
  • Lifestyle changes also have carbon impacts [Studies have shown that the good energy saving habits we form at home don’t necessarily follow us to the workplace. If your workplace is at home – and you’re paying for the energy you’re using – you’re much more likely to be more careful with the amount that you’re consuming.]
  • Employers and government can take measures both to promote homeworking and to maximise the carbon benefits of it

However, research into the environmental benefits of teleworking is not yet concluded. The Carbon Trust says it is too difficult to say whether or not working from home is always beneficial in terms of carbon emissions because too many variables exist. The distance an employee lives from work, the mode of transportation used to get to work, the number of days spent working from home, and the home environment of the employee. The head of Climate Change for the CBI, Rhian Kelly, said that working from home can provide employees with valuable flexibility and relieve some of the pressure on the transport system. “But looking at the environmental side, working from home isn’t always better,” she said. “From a pure perspective of emissions, the research doesn’t always stack up on this issue. The evidence just isn’t conclusive.” She said people tend to turn on the television, radio, kettle and other devices when they are home, in addition to lighting and heating, thereby consuming more energy than if they were at the office where those devices may already be on. Potential for environmental savings exists, but people have to be mindful of the environmental impact. If employees are working from home, they need to avoid using excess energy and ensure that staying in the house is decreasing their carbon footprint, not increasing it (3).

What about you? Could you do your job from home? Do you take the opportunity? Do you enjoy it or not? Why did you choose to try teleworking, or why you choose not to? How often do you work from home?

Telecommuting: good for your employer, you, and the environment!
(infographic courtesy of workshifting.com)
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