This article was originally published in the May/June 1993 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1993




An Alternative Route to Work


by Maureen Quaid

Maureen Quaid, formerly research manager for the telecommuting demonstration at the Washington State Energy Office, is a partner at the Olympia Network, an energy and environmental consulting firm.

Thanks to a revolution in office technology, experts predict that by 1995, some 11 million people--9% of the adult work force--will telecommute. What kind of energy tradeoff can we expect as more American's work at home?

Since 1970, traffic volumes have more than doubled on freeways in the Puget Sound region. Transportation is now the region's single largest energy consumer, and motor vehicles are the leading source of air pollution. The Washington State Energy Office recently completed the Puget Sound Telecommuting Demonstration, a one-year pilot study in which 280 people from 25 organizations worked part-time at home or at a work center near their homes, instead of driving to work. We recruited organizations and helped them launch one-year telecommuting programs. We then evaluated the benefits of fewer vehicle trips, the effects on participants, and the implications of telecommuting for home and office energy use.

We derived energy estimates from a number of sources. Surveys helped us determine how often people telecommuted, and which method of transportation they usually used to commute. Participants maintained travel logs on commute and telecommute days. Site visits helped us determine which uses of office and home equipment were affected by telecommuting. Through personal interviews, we determined times when telecommuting was curtailed. We determined the energy consumption of various types of equipment using engineering calculations and previous research.

Telecommuting affects energy consumption in three areas--transportation, home, and office. It saves transportation (gasoline) and office energy use, but increases home energy use (see Trading a Little Electricity for a Lot of Gasoline Savings, HE, May/June '92, p.11). In the Puget Sound demonstration, we observed slight increases in home energy use, mostly for space heating.

The energy saved at offices by turning equipment off was displaced somewhat by an increase in home equipment use. Many telecommuters used less energy-intensive laptop computers (or no computer at all) at home, so that the increase in home equipment use was more than offset by limiting savings in office equipment use. However, an increase in home lighting use was higher than the savings in office light, since most overhead office lights remained on even when a workstation was vacant.

We did not calculate changes in office heating, ventilating, or cooling energy use because the small number of telecommuters involved would not affect the central heating and ventilating system. When the amount of space conditioned can be reduced as a result of telecommuting, we can assume there will be energy savings.

A decrease in transportation energy was the dominant energy impact. The estimated transportation energy savings were about 5,200 Btu annually per telecommuter, with an increase in home energy use of about 700 Btu per telecommuter (see Figure 1). The net energy savings, taking all impacts into consideration, was about 4,800 Btu per telecommuter per year. Putting this in perspective, a car traveling 1,000 miles and getting 25 miles per gallon consumes about 5,000 Btu, and a typical all-electric Northwest home uses about 75,000 Btu annually.

On average, telecommuters saved 1.7 trips, 39 miles, and 67 minutes on telecommuting days, with most reductions occuring during morning and evening peak commute periods. Home-based telecommuters eliminated an average of 34 round trip commutes, about 1,220 miles, 49 gal of gasoline (based on 25 miles per gallon), and 42 hours of commute time annually. Most telecommuters said they usually drove to work alone, so most trips saved were single occupant vehicle trips. Taken together, the telecommuters in the demonstration saved about 6,460 round trips, 231,800 miles, and 11,600 gal of gas over the demonstration year.


Figure 1. Telecommuting Energy Tradeoffs



The Ins and Outs

Telecommuting affects an employer's bottom line and the employee's conditions and lifestyle. Energy savings from telecommuting will follow behavioral choices made over an extended period of time, and depend on the extent to which the practice is adopted. Organizations will only go for telecommuting if it doesn't detract from performance. With this in mind, here are some other key findings:

  • About two-thirds of participants had professional, while the rest had administrative, management, or support jobs. Telecommuters saw quiet time to work without interruptions, time savings, reduced stress, and flexibility as major benefits, but didn't see gasoline savings as a major benefit.

  • About half of the telecommuters worked at home one day a week. All weekdays were used to telecommute with Wednesday and Thursday used most often.

  • Roughly one-third of the telecommuters dropped out of the project. Some left the organization, changed jobs within it, or lacked proper equipment. Others didn't like telecommuting. Those dropping out were more likely to be supervisors or have more face-to-face interactions, less independent work situations, and shorter commutes. About half of those continuing had to cut back on telecommuting frequency or stop for more than a week--generally because they were needed at the office.

  • Telecommuters reported productivity increases in some cases from 30% to ten times. While 88% cited increased productivity, 70% said their time management improved. Quiet, uninterrupted time was cited as key to enhanced performance. Freedom to work during one's most productive hours was also important.

  • Supervisors agreed that productivity increased, but to a lesser extent than telecommuters reported. After the demonstration, 33% of supervisors reported decreases in their telecommuters' productivity, and 20% agreed that some people take advantage of telecommuting to slack off on their work.

  • Co-workers may sometimes be adversely affected by the telecommuter's absence. While 27% of co-workers said their work load increased after working with a telecommuter, 16% of telecommuters said support staff had more work, while 6% said support staff had less. No such changes were reported by management or professional co-workers.

  • Organizations generally made modest investments for telecommuting employees. Half spent nothing for equipment, while in the other half, the median cost per telecommuter was about $700. One-quarter bought their telecommuters personal computers, one-quarter paid for extra telephone lines, and one-fifth bought modems.

  • Over 90% of the organizations plan to continue the programs. Half said 10-20% of their employees could telecommute, and one-third said 25-50% could.

  • The major barriers to continued or expanded telecommuting are the notion that employees need to be in the office, fears that supervisors may lose control of employees, the fact that some jobs require employees to be in the office, lack of management support, and lack of appropriate equipment.



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