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HR=Humans Represent: Telecommuting may Very Well Leave the Environment (and your wallet) Less Green

Last week I heard a news story on the radio about how telecommuting was hurting people’s pocketbooks because they didn’t stop to think about the added expenses to forgo the drive into work.  One woman living in Atlanta had an old inefficient furnace in her home, and if she was out of the house at work, she wouldn’t use it.  I don’t believe that many of us have stopped to think that even though we are telecommuting, that office sitting in town is still generating heating/cooling, electricity, phones, etc. while we’re not there!  There’s an energy efficiency cost – the department copier/printer is still on for the rest of the department who is working, and you are duplicating this cost again in your home. People should take a moment to ask themselves where their energy comes from.  In you region, if the bulk of energy comes from coal, there is going to be more emissions than if the energy comes from cleaner sources. 

 

Statistics show that telecommuters drive as much as those working in an office.  They say the reasons for this are that telecommuters have extra trips to have lunch with friends, to run errands, and to simply get out of the house since they are pretty much there all of the time.  The truth is that a person’s commute between home and work makes up 20% of all car travel, and statistics also show that telecommuters will drive into work two times a week anyway. 

 

The radio news story already touched on the energy costs of telecommuters who have to equip and power their own offices, but did you stop to think about the manufacturing process for computers and electronics?  It’s pretty environmentally unfriendly (not to mention all this stuff ends up in landfills). 

 

According to Arpad Horvath an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, he estimates that telecommuting lowers a number of emissions, in particular carbon dioxide.  Great news, but that extra electricity used in your home office along with the electronics means that you are producing more nitrous oxide and methane as a telecommuter.  Nitrous oxide is around 300 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide, and methane is 25 times worse – all according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  I suspect the duplication of information (stored on your home AND work computers) and emails also figure into the equation as well. 

 

There are all sorts of talk about telecommuting these days in the news, the Federal government and in the workplace.  It’s important to remember that it is just that – talk.  Everyone’s situation is different, and perhaps it is time to look at telecommuting on an individual basis.  Does it work for you in your situation?  What impact does it have on your finances? Is it causing more (environmental) harm than good?  I’m in agreement with Robert Redford who once said “I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security.  Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad.  Otherwise what is there to defend?”

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Comment by Philippe Vermeulen on February 17, 2011 at 9:09am

Maybe we should rethink the subject and rephrase it in terms of quality of life instead of looking at the impact it has on the "green" soft spot in our hearts.

I do telework one day a week (if there's no unexpected important meetings). It saves me up to 5 hours of commuting and I work from 8AM until 4 PM without any significant break. People at the office - and outside - can reach me on my "normal" desknumber and I have access to all servers. 

The system is well embedded in the federal - and other - administration(s).

Comment by Philip L. Hoffman on February 17, 2011 at 9:00am
Well, if you want to see an agency that makes it work, look at Patent and Trademark.  They have approximately 1/4th of their examiners who telecommute daily, and while there are facilities they can use at PTO HQ, there is not enough space to house them all if they were to start coming in to "work" each day.  That's by design.  Other agencies with space crunches are now doing the same math - if you can't get new lease space, and GSA is likely to be forced to sell off buildings in the next few years, expect more telecommuting, not less.
Comment by Tricia on February 10, 2011 at 11:48am
@ Greg - nicely said! 
Comment by Greg Mt.Joy on February 10, 2011 at 9:22am

Good thought-provoking article. Until organizations are able to downsize facilities because of telecommuting, the green savings are probably a wash. It's also important that the telecommuter make sure he or she is not driving more or cranking up the heat or AC more than normal. I would hesitate to bash telecommuting as a whole though--it's sort of like a city's first rail line--it might be inefficient at first, but once behaviors change and the project scales up, the savings to Earth and wallet are huge.

Comment by Christopher Parente on February 8, 2011 at 8:53am

Thanks for the reply Tricia. Yup, that was the line I was referring to. I don't have time to review all the links, but just read the WP and NPR pieces. Seems like from the individual's perspective (which you encourage in the final paragraph above), telecommuting is a big win. For the environment, maybe yes, maybe no.

More environmental benefits will come from organizations downsizing office space. But, that requires more workers being able to telecommute, so it's a bit of the chicken and egg situation.

Comment by Tricia on February 7, 2011 at 4:32pm
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@ Christopher -

Wasn't bashing telecommuting at all!  In fact, I was simply trying to point out that peple should ask themselves "does it work for you in your situation".  Not sure what you are referring to as my comments on "how slowly the government is  moving to adopt it".  IF you are referring to the sentence(s) of "There are all sorts of talk about telecommuting these days in the news, the Federal government and in the workplace.  It’s important to remember that it is just that – talk", let me rephrase:  Everyone (government, media, companies, etc) is talking about telecommuting and why it is so great for the enviorment and employees (generally in reference to getting to/from work as yourself mentioned).  However, it's important to examine all aspects (the cons of telecommuting as well - which little attention has been brought to these facts) - I am not saying anything new here, but it is little publicized information which people should be aware of to make a truly informed decision on telecommuting as it relates to themselves/their situation.  

 

On one of my responses below I provide some links for people to see what scholars, enviromental organizations, and the newspapers are reporting as far as the cons of telecommuting go (and there's a telework impact estimation tool as well for people to utilize).  I hope that you take a moment to look at these as well. 

Comment by Christopher Parente on February 7, 2011 at 3:20pm

I love a contrarian viewpoint as much as the next person. But I don't see the reason to bash telecommuting.

A distributed work force has sure worked for my organization. People are more productive b/c they are not in their cars commuting every day. Saves me at least two hours a day. We were able to downsize offices in late 2008, b/c we didn't need as much room. And personally, my home office consists of a laptop and a printer -- no huge electricity spikes when I work from home.

Telecommuting itself, and how slowly the government is moving to adopt it, are two totally separate issues. You shouldn't use one to discredit the other. 

 

Comment by Tricia on February 7, 2011 at 2:32pm

This isn't new information.  People have been writing and researching about it for a number of years.

Here's Arpad Horvath's Calculator (The Telework Impact Estimation Tool):  http://cgdm.berkeley.edu/telework/

@ Timothy - Here's the link you were requesting for the "nitrous oxide" information:  http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_repo...

http://www.springerlink.com/content/jhj5m28857ll5824/

 

@ Emi, @ Timothy  - Other articles which may be of interest to you:

Washington Post  2010

NPR  2011

ABC  2008

 

Comment by Peter Sperry on February 7, 2011 at 2:18pm
I can see where this would apply to people with programable thermostats.  Mine is set to turn on 30 minutes before I get up, turn off 15 minutes before I leave for the office, turn on again 30 minutes before I get home etc.  I shutter to think of what my heating and airconditioning bill would be if it were running all day.
Comment by Emi Whittle on February 7, 2011 at 2:05pm
I agree there are some flaws with this article's premises(?) - most telecommuters I know, except in extreme circumstances like snowstorms, are not using any more energy to heat or cool their homes than normal, save resources by eating food already in their homes, reduce strains on other resources, such as doing laundry during a weekday instead of popular weekend laundry times, and the load of a single laptop is far, far less than heating and cooling highly inefficient open cubicle spaces, lobbies, and public restrooms.... plus less wear and tear on people's vehicles, therefore needing fewer repairs and replacements over time,  etc etc....  I just don't think there is realistically a solid argument for not telecommuting on the grounds of using more resources, for most telecommuters.  Now if somebody could show me data that proved that 90% of telecommuters are skewing the efficiency negatively, I may begin to believe that its not much of a saver overall, but might still be very environmentally and economically sound for some of us!

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