Thie week has seen the publication of the Stern Review on Global Warming. This has pointed out that we have to act now on carbon emissions and recommended that we should be investing 1% of GDP to avoid the damaging effects of continued global warming. As well as pointing to technological solutions, the report identifies that there are currently barriers to behavioural change that are preventing the take-up of energy efficiency actions. It recommends regulation and taxation as ways to change behaviour and education as a way of influencing those still at school.

One of the behaviours that is a major cause of carbon emissions is the use of transport
associated with people at work, both commuting and business travel. We have people sitting in gridlocked traffic or crammed into public transport all trying to get to work at the same time, polluting the planet and getting stressed out in the process. We have people travelling to see others face to face when there are technologies available that can substitute for a high percentage of these meetings and save wasted time as well as carbon.

The Stern report is not very explicit about the way we can change these behaviours other than through taxation that makes the cost of transport prohibitive. However there is a much more effective solution waiting to be implemented if we can only get out of some working habits we have acquired over the last 200 years. If employers are prepared to be more flexible about when and where work is performed they can significantly reduce the amount of commuting endured by their employees. If they are also prepared to embrace technologies such as video-conferencing they can save the cost and time of business travel and improve their business results as well as add to their green credentials.

So, why do we still insist that people travel to work and then sit at a desk all day when they could do much of their work from a distance electronically? We are still wed to working patterns that were set up in the Industrial Revolution and we are struggling to adopt those appropriate to the Information Revolution. The internet has changed our habits as consumers and we expect the retail sector to have extended hours but we still have a high percentage of our information workers on a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday routine. The problem is bad management.

Despite a growing body of evidence that shows that people working flexibly are more productive and despite the cost savings and reduction in employee turnover and absenteeism, managers are still reluctant to let go of the current work practices. We have a ‘presenteeism’ culture in the UK that not only expects people to be at their desk to be seen to be working but also puts us at the top of the league in working hours but well down the list in productivity. The reason for this is that managers struggle to define the output of their workers and therefore have to manage by input. If they can’t measure results at leas they can measure the hours that someone works and pay them accordingly. But to be sure people are working they have to be seen at their desk, otherwise how can managers be in control?

So the new focus on global warming through the Stern Review should be a wake-up call to all employers to review their working practices. If their employees can spend one day a week working from home, or perhaps work four longer days and take the fifth off, we can immediately save 20% of the carbon emissions from commuting (at least by car). This also has the added benefit of improved work-life balance for the employee. If employers can replace half their face-to-face meetings with audio or video conferences they will save the time and cost of unnecessary travel and find the time wasted in the meetings also reduces. But to do this, managers will need to step outside their comfort zone of watching over people while they work and empower employees to manage their own work pattern. They will need to trust that people will not abuse this freedom and should provide a motivational environment that encourages productive work not long hours.

This contribution to the carbon emissions issue does not involve painful taxes or investment in new technologies. The office technology is there already to allow people to work at a distance and communicate effectively without travelling. So this solution is good for the environment by reducing travel, good for the economy by improving productivity and good for society by improving the quality of life for employees. By moving managers into the 21st century we can make a fundamental change in the amount of travel associated with work. In a low carbon economy we are going to have to use technology to address the demands for travel and tackle one of the key causes of global warming; not just minimise the effects of the problem through lower emission technologies.