Home working: does it make sense?

When we did our environmental IT research earlier this year, we looked at how IT could help businesses improve their environmental credentials. The top response was to enable home working to reduce commuting. The next two also targeted travel, by substituting it with advanced communications and to enable flexible working to avoid traffic jams.

Although the percentages varied slightly by organisation size, the relative prominence of these three measures did not. In organisations of fewer than 250 employees, the top three percentages were 62, 57 and 53 respectively. (*More details at the foot of this post.)

Taking the home-working issue and its impact on the environment, it’s not quite as straightforward as it appears. Some large companies, such as Sun Microsystems, BT and IBM have made huge strides in this respect and reaped the additional benefits of needing fewer, or smaller, offices. Shared workstations are set up for staff that come in occasionally. Sun actually has a steel frame of a new building at its Surrey headquarters. But it won’t be built, largely because of the change in working patterns over the past few years.

Without question, those staff who can work productively from home do enjoy the opportunity to do so. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they put in longer working hours but, by avoiding the commute, actually get more free time. BT has the right idea – it actually doesn’t care how a person works or how many hours they put in, the important thing is to complete the agreed tasks. (On time and within budget, presumably.)

But, from both a human and an environmental perspective, home working introduces challenges. If a house is otherwise empty, does it make sense to heat it and light it, just so one person can work there? If there are others in the house, is it possible to avoid distractions and interruptions? I have worked ‘from home’ for 24 years, but there was a time when I had to work in the back of the garage to be away from growing up children and the dog, and another time when I rented an office locally. Mind you, I stopped that as soon as I got broadband at home.

Margaret Adams, an HR consultant and trainer, recently wrote about home working issues in Sustainable Solutions magazine. She pointed out that it isn’t right for every person, job or workplace. She then suggests ways of analysing jobs, staff, the home environment and the organisational culture to give a clear-eyed view of whether to go ahead.

Apart from people’s ability or inclination for solitary work and the suitability of their home circumstances, she highlights the possibility of home workers being excluded, especially in fast-moving organisations. She says, “Managers will need to learn how to plan and schedule meetings, briefings and updates in ways that ensure people working at home for part of the week are not disadvantaged.”

So, while home working sounds great for the environment, the employees and the company, other issues need to be considered seriously before taking the plunge.

*The respondents were 1474 IT professionals from around the world with a self-declared interest in answering a green questionnaire. Just over 60 percent of the respondents considered themselves ‘passionate’ to a greater or lesser degree about tackling environmental issues. The remainder were neutral or hostile. They came from companies of all sizes, but 53 percent were from organisations with fewer than 250 employees. Of these smaller organisations, 40 percent had no green commitment.

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