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Flexibility Briefing Paper 


Making work more environment-friendly and creating a better society



"Sustainability" became one of the buzzwords of the 1990s. The definition of the word has been extended to include all sorts of things that various interest groups find valuable. But at the heart of the concept is the principle that the way society conducts its affairs should be in the best interests of the environment as a whole, and that the world we leave to our children should be at least as healthy and as fair as the one we inherited.

It is in our work, and in the way we work, that the human impact on the environment is often at its greatest and most destructive of non-renewable resources, species and habitats. Re-evaluating the way we work, the places where we work and how we get there, are an important a part of seeking to work more sustainably. This goes alongside other activities focusing on waste reduction, recycling and finding more environmentally-friendly components for products.

This briefing paper explores:

  • the environmental benefits of "moving bits rather than atoms"
  • the variety of online activity that could have the effect of reducing traffic
  • the new types of industries that the planning system should favour
  • new ways of working and reduced energy consumption
  • revitalising local services for sustainable communities
  • reducing waste
  • examples of "transport substitution" through use of the new information and communications technologies (ICT)
  • going with the flow of forthcoming environmental and transport legislation
  • promoting awareness of the issues and prospects
  • setting environmental targets for the workplace.

The aim of this paper is to explore the wider implications of working with ICT, and linking the business benefits to other socially desirable considerations.

How ICT can promote sustainable working

Moving bits rather than molecules: The key way that ICT can contribute to sustainability is that working "down the wire", and the electronic delivery of services, hold out the prospect of both people and things moving less. Activities and transactions conducted by "moving bits rather than molecules" occupy less road space, and consume fewer resources.
Doing business down the wire: The main areas of online activity which could have a traffic/energy reduction effect are:
  • telecommuting (i.e. eliminating the commute trip at least some days per week by working at or nearer to home)
  • other forms of teleworking (eliminating trips by teleworking between sites – whether fixed, mobile or from client sites)
  • online financial services such as home banking
  • online shopping
  • online entertainment services
  • online learning.
The green and forward looking company: All of these have in principle the capacity to reduce the need to travel. Trends already indicate increases in these kinds of activities. Where they create efficiencies or open up new markets, businesses are well advised to consider moving in to them. Environmental benefits are on the one hand a welcome spin-off from the business benefits, and on the other can be used to boost the image of the organisation as being both technologically and environmentally progressive.
ICT for traffic reduction: A number of studies have projected the impact of online working and services on traffic. The most optimistic of them (Autoglass, 1996) projects a possible 38% reduction in car journeys per person per week. This figure includes a 43% reduction in the number of work trips per person per week: from 328 million in total in 1996 to 186 million in 2010.

This is of course at odds with the DETR’s projections of traffic increase, but those are based on the continuation of existing trends, rather than wholesale changes in consuming and working practices enabled by ICT.

Complex trends: Trends in the development of new behaviours amongst organisations, workers and consumers are likely to be very complex. New ways of working will not necessarily displace more traditional ways of working. Wealth creation in the "immaterial" (electronic) economy may well boost the traditional "material" economy. The growth of the former may outstrip the latter, but both could grow and provide increased employment opportunities.
Choices can be more or less sustainable: The point is that different practices in working and in service/product delivery can either tend to reduce travel and energy consumption, or not. New technologies make things possible, but there are still choices to be made.

While the future remains volatile and unpredictable, employers and organisations have choices to make, and the sum total of those choices will influence the type of society we create. Those choices, in how work is organised, how services are delivered, can be more or less sustainable. Employers and public agencies can keep an eye on the "environmental bottom line" - asking, "is this activity sustainable or not?"

Planning for sustainable working

New forms of industry: New forms of economic activity do not require the same amount of floorspace as traditional industries, nor do they necessarily generate the similar amounts of traffic or generate significant amounts of noise, smell or other pollutants.

In this sense they tend to be both more environmentally friendly and more community-friendly. However, the criteria used by both government and local government to evaluate the impact of new enterprises are based on regulations from a pre-ICT era. Choices made by organisations about locations of work and property requirements may similarly fail to take into account the flexibilities offered by advanced communications.

The prevailing preference for a green field edge-of-town location with copious car-parking can build in business inefficiencies and is unsustainable in environmental terms.

Local economic development: One area where key choices are made which have a major impact on sustainability is in the development of new industry and employment opportunities in an area. Both private sector and public sector organisations have a role to play in this, and their understanding of the role of the  online economy and new ways of working will be a key factor in local economic development.

The two areas of policy that have the greatest impact in this regard are land use planning and economic development. Local development plans, which guide development control decisions, have a crucial importance in guiding the development of the local economy. Land allocations are informed by an analysis of demand for developable land set against the interests of the community as a whole and the environment.

However, in deciding the amount of land available for development, increasingly outdated criteria are used which assume a certain ratio between floorspace and numbers of employees, likely traffic generation and impact on amenity. The models used are factory- and traditional office-based.

Promoting high-tech and high value: New forms of industry are more suitable for mixed use developments, in line with new (if somewhat unspecific) guidance in government policy (Planning Policy Guidance note 13). Promoting new IT/ICT intensive industry, although it may well represent a departure from local traditions and the local skills base, may well be the most environmentally sustainable route as well as the most competitive.

The various agencies involved in local economic development can combine an emphasis on sustainability with an emphasis on high tech high value inward investment.

Agenda 21:
Most parts of the country now have in place Local Agenda 21 (LA21) projects. These are typically organised by Local Authorities by themselves or working in partnership with other agencies. The underlying emphasis, developed from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit is "Think global, act local". LA 21 has perhaps tended to be weak in relation to economic development and employment issues.

However, in some areas LA21 policy is being developed to encourage working nearer to home and travel reduction. Promoting teleworking has a role to play in this regard.

Roads to market: The CBI has recently produced a report Roads to Market, which is its response to the government's Transport White Paper. Poor and congested transport infrastructure is identified as inflicting major costs on industry. "Teleworking to minimise the need to travel" is at the top of its list of solutions. This is sometimes referred to as "transport substitution".
Measuring the traffic impact of new ways of working: A recent DETR study conducted by The Home Office Partnership, Hague Consulting Group in association with Cambridgeshire County Council identified the forms of work most amenable to becoming "location independent" (or "teleworkable"), and projected the traffic impacts using the local network traffic model.

Amongst the most significant findings were that for County Council headquarters staff and field workers based in the Cambridge area:

  • commute miles could be reduced by 500,000-1.25 million per year (depending on level of uptake)
  • commute hours could be reduced by 40,000 – 75,000 per year
  • in-work mile could be reduced by 300,000 – 900,000 per year
  • reductions in emissions would include up to 26,200 kg CO, 323,000 kg CO2 and 4,500 kg NOx.

Further projections for the city as a whole showed reduction in commute of up to 8 million miles.

Sustainability and economic regeneration: ICT can also be used to market and to provide services. Some areas or cities have given ICT a high profile in promoting their economic identity. Such areas range from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to urban areas in need of regeneration such as Amsterdam's "Teleport", or Singapore's IT 2000 project or Malaysia's "Multimedia Supercorridor".

These areas have little intrinsically in common, apart from a need to bring in work from outside to the local population, and a will on the part of the authorities to project a high technology and progressive image for the area. In the case of the Highlands and Islands part of the imperative is the need to regenerate rural communities by bringing in real work opportunities, while in the case of Amsterdam urban regeneration is given an electronic focus, with a particular focus on call centres. Bringing work to rural areas without building factories, and reusing urban industrial land are two examples of ICT being used for sustainable economic development.

Revitalising local services: Awareness of the sustainability implications of ICT is growing, and will be reflected in policies for planning and growth. For example, South Cambridgeshire became one of the first local authorities to include teleworking in its local plan. In an area of restraint in terms of new developments, but where there is high demand for business location, teleworking is seen as offering a potential way forward for more environmentally acceptable business development.

In addition, South Cambridgeshire planners see teleworking as offering one way forward for regenerating local communities. Here the problem is not remoteness, but accessibility. Most settlements are dominated by people who commute to London, or nearby towns. Having more people working at or near home during the day will help revitalise local services, as the spending of former commuters is "repatriated" to the local village or small town.

The elusive paperless office: The "paperless office" is a goal that forever recedes into the distance as we advance towards it. IT, as we all know, can generate paper as much as replace it.

However, it is helpful in terms of sustainability to think of the "paperless office" as a kind of holy grail, a goal that should be pursued. One aim of the introduction of online processes should be the elimination of wasteful paper processes. Many organisations are doing this. Key elements are:

  • using email to replace memos – but emails should not be printed, unless absolutely essential
  • developing an intranet – put manuals, directories, widely distributed corporate information etc online on an internal version of the World Wide Web, so that information can be updated from a single point and paper circulation be virtually eliminated
  • working collaboratively online – share electronic files that can be worked on by multiple users, rather than the slow process of passing on paper files
  • sharing information electronically before meetings, rather than distributing paper files before and during meetings.
  • reducing the amount of paper at the interface with customers, clients and suppliers, by moving towards EDI, extranets and Internet-based services.

Working online can be promoted as much as an environmental initiative as an efficiency one.

Examples of "transport substitution"

US Telecentres: Telecentres established around major conurbations in the US by Federal Agencies (e.g. the Genera Services Agency) and local authorities (e.g. City of Los Angeles) have proved effective in reducing substantially the travel of workers who use them. A study in 1995 of the travel impact of the telecommuting centres across the US (from Washington to Hawaii) and in Scandinavia concluded that the average number of commute miles saved per trip to the centre averages 93.4 miles. While Americans do tend to have longer commute journeys, it was also the case that working in the telecommute centres was more attractive to people with longer commutes. The wider impact on total travel however has been limited, due to the small numbers of workers involved so far.
Green transport plans: 1998 is set to be the year when Green Transport Plans came of age in the UK. Numerous companies (such as Boots) and public sector organisations (such as Cambridgeshire Health Authority) have committed themselves to developing Green Transport Plans which promote environmentally-friendly travel to work amongst their employees. Frequently research and awareness raising activities are carried out as partnerships with other companies and local authorities under a banner such as Travelwise.

Increasingly such groups (as in Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire) are adding in teleworking/telecommuting as environmentally-friendly work options. The research that goes into measuring travel-to-work distances highlights the amount of national resources consumed in travelling to work

Reducing mileage and emissions: It is clearly established that teleworking, for the majority of workers, does lead to a reduction in mileage and pollutant emissions. The exceptions tend to be amongst mobile teleworkers (e.g. sales reps) who by eliminating the journey to base may fit in some extra visits each time they go on the road.

What is less clear is the effects of "latent demand" - that is new trips generated by

  • family members now able to use a car previously used for commuting (e.g. driving to partner's workplace, or children's school etc)
  • other daytime journeys undertaken by the "telecommuter" (e.g. at lunchtime)
  • people shifting from other modes of transport to take advantage of roadspace vacated.

Studies on the relationship of latent demand to uptake of remote working are still in their infancy - the jury is out on this one.

At present the balance of evidence would indicate it is appropriate to promote ICT enabled work as a contributor to sustainability, while employing measures to restrict possible increases in demand from non-teleworkers.

Energy efficiency: A study funded by the Department of Employment in Sheffield found that home-based teleworkers consumed on average half the amount of energy as their office-based counterparts. This was due in large part to eliminating car journeys to and from work. But it was also the case that the economies of scale in energy consumption that one might expect in a centralised office do not in fact occur, due to the effects of lighting, heating and air-conditioning large energy-inefficient spaces, and having all systems on all the time.

By comparison, the extra energy required in the home for teleworking is small. Realising the business and energy reduction benefit, however, depends on not retaining office spaces for people working from home, or people who are regularly out of the office.

Online services: There are already numerous examples of online services: home shopping, banking and entertainment, mediated over the phone, Internet or television. Over the past 3 years there have been numerous interactive television trials (e.g. in Westminster, Cambridge and Ipswich) mostly driven by cable and telecommunications companies. In each case the results show that the technology works, but the expectation is that the growth will be slow, depending on the  accumulation of useful services rather than a sudden explosion due to a "killer application".

The contribution of such services to traffic reduction is difficult to measure. A report commissioned by the RAC in 1997 predicted that by 2007 new communications will cut shopping travel by about 17%.

Future developments

Complex behaviours: The studies mentioned above, and those by telecommunications providers such as BT, indicate the growing impact of ICTs at work and in the home. The sustainability benefits come largely, though not exclusively, through reduction in the need to travel. Life is however more complex than that, and how people's behaviours change with the introduction of new technologies is very unpredictable.

To take an example: cinema in the UK came close to dying with the advent of television. The arrival of video was expected to finish it off. Instead, an increase in the number of TV channels, the development of a huge video market and the arrival of other screen-base activities such as video games, has coincided with a major revival in cinemas. People are travelling more to go to the cinema than they were a decade ago.

Similarly, new phenomena such as online shopping will not necessarily lead to a decline in "going to the shops": both sectors could grow simultaneously and indeed the growth of online activities can be used to promote traditional forms of commerce. The upshot may be that people will travel more, not less, in some areas of activity.

Anti-car measures to come: The indications are that the developments of trends to online activity will coincide with active measures by government to discourage car use. Likely changes to regulations include:
  • changes to company car tax benefits
  • taxing private non-residential car parking
  • road pricing
  • incentives to use public transport
  • permission for local authorities to experiment with more radical traffic reduction schemes.

Given that public enthusiasm for alternatives to the car (public transport, cycling, walking) tends to be limited by the perceived inconvenience involved, transport substitution is likely to have increasing appeal.

Green Audits: A growing trend in organisation, particularly in the public sector, is to undertake an "Environmental Audit" of all their work processes. These involve examining all processes to look at the impact on the environment: typically these will focus on energy efficiency, waste, and purchasing policies. But increasingly these are likely to include examination of the effects of location and communications. Best practice benchmarking is likely to emerge.

Sustainability – the way forward with ICT

Awareness: Use of ICT does not of course provide some magic wand to make all business processes sustainable, any more than it necessarily makes them more efficient. However, there is strong evidence that ICT can be used to make organisational – and consumer – behaviour more sustainable.

In order to achieve this, however, there has to be awareness at the outset in introducing new ways of working and online delivery of services and products. The "sustainability effect" can also be built into business plans for persuading investors, partners or employers of the worth of a project.

Much, however needs to be done to raise awareness of the issues and possibilities amongst employers and employees, and amongst planners and policy makers.

Developing the infrastructure: Much of the infrastructure for online activities will be developed by the telecoms and broadcast industries. However, local resources can be deployed by building partnerships to develop local networks. Building in sustainability as an objective will help to widen the scope of partnerships and may help to attract investment.

A particular challenge will be in extending the infrastructure into areas that telecoms companies will regard as less attractive. In these areas (e.g. more remote areas, areas with smaller populations, areas with no cable franchise and therefore no effective competition) the initiative will fall to public bodies to develop provision.

Setting targets: Within an organisation or community, sustainability targets can be set. Too often the milestones and outcomes of a sustainability project are yet more reports (there goes another rainforest…). These targets should take some practical form, such as
  • reducing work trips by n by the year x, or reducing in-work travel by n% per year
  • analysing the number of workers who could work from home, for how much of the time, and set targets for the phased introduction of new ways of working in the organisation
  • setting targets for moving towards the "paperless office" – n% of paper transactions to become electronic by the year x.

Further information

There is an extensive literature on the impact of ICT (through telecommuting) on traffic reduction and the environment. A useful starting point for this is the publications list of the University of California at Davis

A summary of the research is also available in an article by Andy Lake in the March 1998 edition of Flexible Work, published by the Eclipse Group

There are some useful websites containing case histories of new ways of working promoting traffic reduction: reports on travel reduction at Hertfordshire County Council’s Trading Standards department reports on the effects of a trip reduction programme in Maricopa County, Arizona

A recent project Telecommuting 2000 supported by Symantec and Mitel and conducted by the Home Office Partnership looked at the possibilities of reducing traffic through telecommuting. Information on the project can be found at



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