Working patterns are changing. Strive towards higher productivity, effectiveness and profits coupled with technological development, digitalisation and globalisation are creating a new momentum for distance work. Working on line from airports, clients’ office, home or holiday houses is a reality in many parts of the world.
Distance work can mean practical benefits both to employers and employees. It may reduce office operational costs (for example reduced real estate costs and lower utility bills) and green house gas emissions. Improved working motivation and productivity among staff and improved balance between work and life are examples of reported benefits from distance work, too.
In a broader picture, distance work contribution to societal and environmental benefits include such as less congestion from commuter traffic, improved mobility in cities and better chances to achieve climate change mitigation goals.
For example, thanks to a well designed distance work scheme, a US based software company reduced its office space by 15% and was able to save USD 387 million over six years between real estate costs and electricity. This type of flexibility enabled its staff to gain a better work/life balance, use time more efficiently and thus increase productivity. Furthermore, the company prevented 29,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere in the same time period by reducing the need to commute among staff.
ICT companies have developed software to enable distance work that have been in the market and improved for several years already. Nonetheless, many of the problems related to distance work origin from organisational issues.
Distance work can generate mistrust and misunderstandings when organisations implement it without proper guidance on how to work from distance, and without considering enough simple rules on costs or content of work, tasks, responsibilities, reporting and communications. Moreover, not all staff may want to work from distance. Not all supervisors are capable or willing to adjust their management patterns to distance work.
Therefore, there is a real need to carry out a detailed feasibility study followed by a clear and concrete implementation plan before any distance work scheme is materialised. Such feasibility study should evaluate willingness and preparedness of staff and managers for distance work, available ICT equipment, energy and GHG emissions audits, and administrative aspects and processes. Also the broader context where the distance work scheme will be implemented, such as quality and availability of internet connection and security aspects among others, should be assessed.
The outcome of the feasibility study should provide a clear picture of the potential and needs to implement distance work, clear how-to instructions and rules, such as number of days worked away from office (a distance work scheme does not necessarily mean staff should no longer work in office at any day), how often staff should meet face to face and a monitoring plan to determine costs and benefits.
When carefully planned, distance work can be an innovative solution for sustainability.
PS. Gaia just carried out a study for the United Nations on potential benefits of distance working. Gaia provided expert services to the study.