Move photons not people

January 1, 2007 at 2:27 pm Leave a comment

The powers that be seem fixated on transport, and by that I mean transport of large scale things such as people, objects, products, goods etc. You would have thought that, with their equal obsession with all things Internet, with e-this, and e-that, that there was a glaringly obvious and stupendously big win available for us all.

It is really bad for the environment to move relatively large things like cars and people long distances, and much more energy efficient to move relatively small things like photons and electrons. What I mean by this somewhat obscure comparison is replacing real presence with virtual presence at work, in meetings, and in communications .

Consider that:

  • The mass of US mid-size SUV is approx 1800 kg
  • The mass of an average US male is approx 190 kg
  • The mass of an electron is 9.11 × 10–31 kg
  • The mass of a photon is zero (if one ignores the concept of relativistic mass)

So which will take the most energy to move? Of course this is not a fair comparison, because to provide virtual presence requires the transmission of many millions of photons and electrons, and in any case, it is more appropriate to compare the total energy costs of both alternatives.

Computing these energy costs could get very complicated, especially if you factor in all of the ancillary costs including manufacture and maintenance of systems and components.

Perhaps someone would be interested enough in the physics and computer science aspects of this problem to work out the energy cost of a 2 hour virtual meeting, which at its most extreme would use high quality VTC, compared to moving all the participants from different locations across a country. I would wager that the savings, especially over time and multiple meetings could be immense.

I am not alone in having these thoughts, just take a look at the paper on Green Telecommuting produced by the charity Forum for the Future. It is reported in this paper that Sweden’s Siemens Nixdorf found that teleworkers saved 74,600km/year for the company as a whole.

I really like the initial quotation that introduces the document: “Work is something you do, not somewhere you are”. I just wish more employers would be enlightened enough to understand this. Some of the major ones do, BT and IBM being prime examples. Look at the survey from 2002 at BT, reported on by ZDNET, that teleworking is good for people’s health.

IBM and BT are not doing this out of goodwill, they are doing it because there are also huge business benefits. Just look here at some of the data from the telework coalition.

There are several trends which you would have thought would have increased the amount of teleworking:

  1. Reduced telecommunications costs
  2. Increased communications performance and capacity
  3. Increased sophistication of collaboration technologies
  4. Increasing proportion of “knowledge workers” in the developed world – replacing large-scale heavy industries and manufacturing
  5. Increased awareness of the environmental cost of mass commuting
  6. Increased awareness of the social cost of parents (as workers) not being able to achieve an appropriate work/life/family-time balance.

What is therefore surprising is that there has been no significant increase in the proportion of the workforce which is teleworking. What I would be interested in discussing is:

  1. Why have we not seen any significant increase in teleworking, despite the trends listed above?
  2. What are the major factors which are preventing its uptake and can we do anything about them?
  3. Why are the politicians apparently ignoring this idea, or at least not promoting it through information campaigns, policy changes and financial incentives?
  4. Why are governments not even setting a good example in those areas of the public service that could work remotely?

What prompted me to raise this subject is the more serious attention being paid to environmental concerns, e.g. most recently the publication of Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change. In particular consider what David Miliband, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in response to this report i.e. That we need to “… to prepare and achieve a long term shift in the way we live and work. …” So how are organisations responding to this?

Responding to this question personally, my own experience is of my current employer effectively ignoring the trends by centralising its operations at a few geographic locations. You might presume that this would cut down on travel, which in relation to movements between current locations it will. However, these new locations are somewhat remote, and not easy to commute to without personal transport. Also, many employees will choose, often because of unavoidable home-life needs and priorities, to commute to the new locations from their current homes. Others will be forced to find new residences that are geographically dispersed from these locations due to lack of suitable local housing. The net result will proabably be a significant increase in the amount of miles travelled.

Such decisions, and similar ones are probably the norm (but please let me know of your experiences to negate this assumption if its incorrect), and do not represent a “shift in the way we live and work”; rather they reinforce all that is bad in previous models. Why do I say this? The reason is that the corporate view is one of requiring employees to be in the office and at the desk. This is despite the fact that a significant number need to frequently work away with clients and collaborating organisations, and despite a supposed corporate policy of supporting flexible working and signing up to corporate social responsibility. This seems to yet another instance of the difference between rhetoric and reality, a policy which has corrosive influence on trust between staff and management.

There is an alternate way of doing things, which is to allow, and in fact encourage and enable, more distributed working, including home working. As noted earlier, other large technically-orientated organisations (such as IBM and BT) have recently been adopting this model. In fact, the model these other organisations have is to dispense with, to a large extent, the notion of having to permanently “site” their staff.

To quote from a DTI/CBI/TUC document, entitled “Managing Change” on British Telecom’s change: “BT, through using a variety of approaches to flexible working has developed an “anytime, anywhere” approach to working that allows many employees to control both the location and hours they work. BT estimates that this has earned them £5-6m in saved productive time and in an organisation where 75% of staff work flexibly they have broken any presenteesism culture.”

BT first introduced homeworking in the early 80’s. The organisation has 73,000 staff working flexibly – whether they are homeworkers, nomadic workers or on annualised hours. It has developed an anytime anywhere approach to working…..The approach has been driven by a move to output or outcome-based performance management…..It is underpinned by a range of enabling technology that allows people to create a ‘virtual office’ on the move.

IBM are also undertaking a similar approach, as detailed in their paper “A radical approach to transforming the way we work: On demand working”.

IBM believes that organisations can benefit by moving to environments that support on demand working – “environments which support effective team-working and collaboration, environments which support the modern knowledge age, environments which provide the security needed to operate safely, and environments which provide employees with the flexibility to work to meet the demands of 21st century business practice.”

Its not just business that is promoting the benefits of such as approach, as UK Government Minister Particia Hewitt plauded the benefits of teleworking in her address to the telework 2000 conference and noted both the UK Prime Ministers’ and her admiration for a Cambridge-based company which had effectively disbanded the traditional concept of an office and moved to a near 100% teleworking concept with tremendous benefits. They both viewed this as an approach that should be replicated more widely across the UK (if not perhaps to the extreme extent of this organisation).

Finally, there is not just a personal benefit, a financial and business benefit, but there is also an environmental benefit that governments have yet to recognise and promote. However, regional government organisations have already recognised the potential, as noted the Forum For the Future paper.

If one were to allow a greater number of staff to make use of increased distributed and home working – a number of significant benefits could emerge:

  1. Significant reduction in commuting with consequent reduction in congestion, car parking requirements and of course most importantly C02 production.
  2. Providing employees with a better quality of life and improving home-work balance – something that many organisations have been struggling to achieve for some time.
  3. Enabling employees to work where it best fits the business need – so if people need to be closer to customer/supplier sites than main offices – this could be accomodated.
  4. Reducing the impact of loss of expertise as a consquence of company relocations.
  5. Providing a means for office space to be made more generous per person and flexible in layout (assuming that one can take greater advantage of a significantly reduced occupancy rate). This would enable the office to be designed as the location to support team/group face-to-face interaction, rather than somewhere to house people as individuals, on the basis that everyone is expected to attend every day.

IBM and BT experience demonstrates that both from technical and policy points of view such an approach is entirely feasible, it just needs the will to do it and succeed. So why are organisations so resistant to this change?


Entry filed under: Energy, Environment, Organisations.

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