Study: telecommuting could reduce national fuel bill

Workplace changes could make telecommuting more effective, says MED report

A study of potential ways of saving oil during a possible shortage in New Zealand credits telecommuting — working through email, internet, phone and fax links — with potentially contributing about 0.4% saving to the nation’s transport fuel bill. The combined effect of all meaures considered is about 7%, making telecommuting's share 5.7% of total savings.

The study, entitled Oil Demand Restraint Options for New Zealand,was prepared by consultancies Covec and Hale & Twomey for the Ministry of Economic Development.

However, the report, drawing extensively on UK and international studies of the problem, casts doubt on whether telecommuting is sustainable with our current workplace technology and organisation.

“Telecommuting is likely to be more effective in the short term,” the report says, “as over the long term issues over management of employees [are] likely to become more significant." However, employers may be more tolerant of such management issues in an emergency than they would be under normal circumstances, the report notes.

“We would expect the benefits to start reducing after one month, although there could be some long-term benefits from some employers/employees permanently changing work structures,” says the study.

Auckland-based telework specialist Bevis England views the report positively. “It is one of the first times the potential benefits of telework have been seriously considered by a government body.” That's an encouraging sign for champions of the practice, he says.

While England can't find specific fault with the authors’ calculations, he suspects the 0.4% savings figure is “fairly low”.

One possible reason for this is that telecommuting is dealt with in the report separately from a 10% reduction in “discretionary trips”, which is credited with producing a 2.16% petrol saving. Many of those trips are work-related, England says, and a lot of the reduction will be achieved through the use of IT, so could be described in a broad sense as "telework".

The staff management problem does exist, but should not be overestimated, England says. “A lot of today’s managers already know how to work with virtual teams and supervise people who aren’t [on site]” he says. “Some of them like to pretend they don’t, but they do.”

If telecommuting is conjured up suddenly as the solution to a crisis, there will obviously be some problems, he says. “It’s important to start putting the frameworks in place now before the crisis arrives.”

The MED report says savings attributable to telecommuting might be reduced by people using their cars during the day for “discretionary” trips from home that they would not make when based in the office or factory,

England questions this; he points to studies done in California which show teleworkers get into a less-car-use mindset and make fewer discretionary journeys from home. The Californian studies show a 20% reduction in commuting is accompanied by a 22% reduction in discretionary car use, he says.

In a chart of cost and effectiveness of various measures, telecommuting is shown as an “expensive” measure but with a potentially “large” impact (“expensive” is the top band on the cost scale, but the savings scale runs up to “very large”).

Oil Demand Restraint Options for New Zealand achieved quick notoriety in the media for suggesting driving-ban schemes similar to the late 1970s imposition of one “carless day” a week.

A slightly less severe scheme suggested by the International Energy Agency report Saving Oil in a Hurry — used extensively as a source for the NZ report — is one carless day in ten on the basis of the last digit of the vehicle’s registration number. This shows on the cost-effectiveness chart as having potential for "very large" savings with a very small implementation cost.

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