The next green tech bandwagon - teleworking? By Peter Judge
I think working from home will be the next big idea in using tech to make business more efficient and environmentally friendly.
No “green” idea is going to take off now unless it also promises financial savings, and teleworking, like data centers and desktop management, does just that. It also - maybe - could improve workers’ well being.
The UK has seen a big public sector campaign - Operation Stepchange -in which government workers were told to test their ability to work from home, during one week in early February. The same week, mobile operator O2 actually closed its headquarters building down for one day, demanding everyone work from home.
Both of these moves were presented as ways to test how well organisations would cope with the increased traffic expected during London’s Olympics, but they also have an eye on the long term future. Government workers could operate cheaper and more flexibly with more home-working. And O2 benefits twice, since more mobile working will mean an increase in mobile data services.
A movement like teleworking has its promotional bodies and events: March 5 to March 9 has been designated TeleworkWeek. It’s an annual event and Josh Sawislak of website Telework Exchange claims last 40,000 people took part last year, saving $2.7 million in commuting costs, 3.7 million vehicle miles, and 1818 tons of emissions.
Now Telework Exchange, along with Cisco, is the promotor of Telework Week, so let’s not take those figures as gospel. But it’s definitely true that teleworking saves on travel costs, travel emissions, and travel time.
Sawislak admits that beyond that, return on investment is hard to calculate. Having fewer people in the office can save on deskspace, heating and lighting - but only if the space gets used more efficiently through hot desking or “hotelling”.
“If I only use 20 percent of a dollar, I can spend the 20 cents and still have 80 cents for later,” says Sawislak. “But if I use 20 percent of a desk, unless someone else needs 80 percent of that desk, it may be unused.”
I doubt if O2 made significant savings in its building costs through having the head office empty for one day. Even if companies share desks, and consolidate, they may still have empty floors or empty buildings on their hands.
And savings like heat and light may be offset by the employees paying to keep their homes warm during the day.
Cash calculations and organisational issues will get tangled as the boundary blurs between home and work. If you save money on your commute, should you accept that instead of a pay rise?
And there’s still no real answer to the question of whether teleworkers really are as effective as those in the office.
I’m guessing that some parts of the jobs are far better at home, but strategy and ideas don’t happen in isolation. In my editorial life, I’ve seen publications run out of steam because the editorial team never met, and I’ve also seen people worn down by the requirement to produce copy in a noisy office. Ideally, you balance the two; you are there when you need to meet people, and somewhere quiet when you need to produce something. But that’s not always easy to arrange.
But teleworking has been around for at least thirty years, why is it coming of age now? It is being finally enabled by the arrival of powerful mobile technology and - more importantly - cloud services.
In other words, if teleworking succeeds, it will be because of the data centers on which those cloud services are built. If it turns out to be green, it will be down to the efficiency of those servers.