Bill Gearhart, Independent Consultant
In a recent CIDM blog entry on writing “green,” Bill Hackos asked what information developers might change to help minimize our impact on the environment. And he noted that while there are simple and obvious steps that we can take, few of us take them. While working from home or telecommuting in some form clearly would save energy, both companies and individuals are often reluctant to give up an office environment.
Bill cites two reasons. The first is that humans are compulsive communicators who need to interact in person, and the second is that managers have no good paradigm for managing remotely. Research shows that these are in fact two of the top reasons, or more accurately, rationalizations for the relative lack of telecommuting. Research also shows that telecommuting does have a measurable positive impact on our environment. In this article, I’ll cover just what benefits we can gain, and how we can overcome some of the obstacles that telecommuting presents.
The real environmental benefits of working at home
Telecommuting results in two types of conservation that directly correlate to resource-cutting in the corporate world. “Direct” or “hard” savings measure those resources that are not spent as a result of telecommuting, and they are typically easy to measure. The top hard savings from telecommuting are
- reduced fuel usage
- reduced air pollution
- reduced office energy consumption
So how big are these benefits? Let’s, as they say, start locally and work our way out into a broader view. Consider the positive effect that a typical team of 10 technical communicators would have if they worked from home rather than commuted an average of 15 miles each way. According to the Telework Coalition, this team would reduce their collective emission of pollutants by over 25 tons in a year’s time and their gasoline usage by 2500 gallons. Those are significant hard savings. Imagine now a company with ten times as many writers.
Then think even bigger. Every week 32,000,000 Americans could be telecommuting at least one day. Each week they would drive 1.3 billion fewer miles (equal to 51,000 times round the Earth) and would save over 74 million gallons of gasoline. That’s about 3.6 billion gallons a year, about 4% of the yearly US total consumption.(http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/quickfacts/quickoil.html)
Furthermore, each week those Americans would pump into the atmosphere 540,978 tons less carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and hydrocarbons. That’s 26 million tons a year, all from telecommuting only one day a week.
Telecommuters also use less energy in their home office than they do on site, mostly because the incremental energy used in a home office is less than the energy needed to heat, cool, and provide power to a separate office building. The telecommuters’ homes already need to be heated and cooled during the day. The electricity and heating and cooling usage they incur is more than offset by the savings incurred by delaying new construction and repurposing current office space.
“Associated” or “soft” environmental savings again correlate to the “soft savings” mentioned by corporations. Such benefits are somewhat elusive and difficult to measure, but theory shows that the benefits exist. The top soft savings from telecommuting are
- reduced energy usage to support travel infrastructure
- reduced land usage to expand travel infrastructure
A tremendous amount of energy is required to produce, operate, and maintain not only transportation equipment such as automobiles, buses, trains, and jet aircraft but also transportation infrastructure such as highways, bridges, and railways. Increasing telecommuting decreases the energy required by transportation equipment and infrastructure proportionately. Additionally, the loss of carbon-filtering green space will be reduced as telecommuting helps stem the consumption of undeveloped land for highways and parking lots.
Overcoming the drawbacks and achieving the benefits
As Bill Hackos discussed, the need for social interaction and an effective paradigm for managing employees remotely are the two biggest obstacles to telecommuting. Overcoming these issues is deceptively simple, but like many changes it requires company, organizational, and personal discipline including
- planning and organization
- effective communication
Planning and organizational skills are absolutely essential for successful telecommuting projects. From a personal standpoint, each telecommuting employee needs to adopt a self-starting attitude and manage time effectively. Telecommuters must be proactive in working with their product team and their management staff to set agreed-upon objectives that are easily measured and segmented into interim milestones to keep everyone on track.
Telecommuters must embrace and participate in processes, and managers must enforce a process—any process—so that all employees know the ground rules and dependencies and can anticipate upcoming activities. Traditional phased-management processes offer the advantages of documenting product designs and decisions, but even agile processes have begun to be used effectively through the use of inexpensive and easy to use video and teleconferencing, instant messaging, and voice over internet protocol.
Communication is more than attending videoconference meetings in a group setting. The entire team must replace the ability to “yell over the cubicle” with the technologies at hand. We are indeed social animals, and the proliferation of communications technologies is changing the way we socialize in both our personal and professional lives. We no longer need to meet face-to-face to keep in touch, and all trends show that as a society we are moving away from direct contact into a more electronic and virtual culture. We share cell phone conversations, text, picture, and instant messages, email, and video snippets with friends, family members—and increasingly—with our coworkers and bosses. This flexibility of media and our willingness to be available to each other is invaluable in a global work environment and makes effective telecommuting possible.
The final piece of the puzzle is accountability. Managers are often reluctant to give up the control they feel when their employees are located right next to them and they can walk around to see who’s working. But I believe that in reality that sense of control is an illusion, and always has been. The old saying that you manage processes and lead people is true. The best managers empower their teams to take action, collaborate with them to set objectives, and then get out of their way. This remains true in a telecommuting environment. Sure, managers must keep the pulse of projects, progress, and milestones, but their time is best spent removing the roadblocks their teams encounter and in helping their employees keep their skills current through mentoring, training, reading, and research.
In short, the benefits of telecommuting are real and substantial, both to the environment and to a corporation’s bottom line. Challenges certainly exist, but with sound management principles and a willingness to embrace new ideas regarding social interaction and work habits, we can indeed reap the rewards.