Workers Can Save the Environment One Telework Day at a Time

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By Genevieve Douglas

April 22 is Earth Day, serving as a reminder to employers that flexible work options reduce costs, make employees happy and can have a positive effect on the environment.

“It really does make a large impact when people work from home and they stop commuting to work,” Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs, told Bloomberg BNA April 19. Commuting is the biggest stressor on the environment as far as work activities go, Weiler Reynolds said. Commuting by vehicle contributes greatly to transportation, the second-largest sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and company offices are part of the third-largest contributor, according to FlexJobs.FlexJobs research shows that employees who telecommute at least 2.5 out of five days a week can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3.6 million metric tons per year. This savings is equivalent of planting 91 million trees to offset air pollution put out by commuting and greenhouse gases, Weiler Reynolds said. “Rather than having to plant a giant forest of trees, people can do their work at home.”

But employers should also consider that flexible work options can contribute to employees’ health as well, Weiler Reynolds said. Letting people stay home not only decreases greenhouse gas emissions, but it also decreases employees’ exposure to poor quality air and other pollution, she said. In fact, the federal Office of Management and Budget listed poor air quality as one of the reasons to allow federal employees to telecommute, according to Weiler Reynolds.

“Even if you bike to work or walk to work, you’re still exposed to the other cars commuting,” Weiler Reynolds noted. Telecommuting, on the other hand, can benefit individual people, create a healthier workforce and better the environment, she added. “It’s kind of a win-win.”

Have Open Offices Made Telecommuting Popular?

Beyond the potential positive environmental effects, the rise of telecommuting may be occurring because of companies’ decisions to design open office spaces, Scott Cooper, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Blank Rome Counselors at Law LLP, said April 18. In an open office floor plan, employers and workers are battling over the potential positive effects of collaboration versus the negative effects of lost privacy, and workers are asking for flexibility, Cooper said.

Younger workers, in particular, find the traditional open office plan stifling, according to Cooper. Millennials want to be able to find focus when they need it and collaboration when they want it, he said. Differing workplace demands will likely only further collide and could even lead to conflicts among employees, he said.

“Companies are reconsidering the best environment for their employees” given the technology available to most of the workforce, Asima Ahmad, an associate in the Philadelphia office of Blank Rome, said April 18. Telecommuting is a popular solution for employers, because employees who work from home report higher job satisfaction and loyalty to the organization, making for more productive workers, she said.

Compliance Considerations

Before giving employees free rein to work from wherever, employers should consider some potential risks of a telecommuting workforce, Cooper said. For example, security concerns arise with telecommuting and flexible offices, because companies don’t want employees sending confidential information over wireless networks at non-secure locations or leaving confidential information in sight in an open office, Cooper said. Organizations also shouldn’t have different technology standards or policies that are inconsistent across different employee populations, he added.

HR should also be on the lookout for equal employment opportunity implications if there is a disparate impact from telecommuting policies across employees of different ages, genders or races, Ahmad said. Moreover, employers must be sure to provide a safe work environment for telecommuters, just as they would for those working on company property, she added.

Pay may also become more complicated for employees who work outside the office and could “appear” to be logged on and doing work, even if they are not, Cooper said. Many employers “are way behind on this front,” so HR must ensure processes are in place for employees to accurately record and report all time worked, he said.

Overall, HR must “make sure that the policies at your place of employment actually mirror what you are trying to do” and stay ahead of potential risks that come with changing practices, Cooper said. HR also has to be sure these policies are clearly communicated to employees and are updated regularly to keep pace with changes in the workplace, he added.

Cooper and Ahmad spoke during a webinar hosted by Blank Rome.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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