Telecommuting and the green office of the future

Businesses are becoming greener, not just because it's right but because it makes sense.

Paul Marerro didn't consciously try and start an environmentally conscious company. It happened naturally. Working out of a home office in Tampa, Fla., Marerro provides database and application enterprise architecting, report writing and project management services.

As his company Caaspre Consulting LLC, grew, he hired a full-time employee in Iowa and added contractors in Cincinnati and Florida. All had worked for Marerro before in traditional offices. But the time for traditional offices has passed, both for Marrero and for a growing number of companies.

"It's all telecommuting," Marerro said.

If he had more full-time employees, he'd consider a virtual office, which would allow facilities like a conference room and phone-answering service. But for now, he's happy, he said.

Marerro doesn't have much waste and while he can't go totally paperless, waste paper is shredded and recycled. His business cards are made from recycled paper and all invoices are e-mailed. When he visits his largest client in Philadelphia, he walks or takes public transportation around the city.

"The green has worked its way in," Marerro said. "We consume electricity but nowhere near the amount of an office building. It's a room in your house."

Ideally, Marerro said he'd like to grow the business while expanding his green practices to include solar panels for his home and office. "But it's also nice to have several large clients, stay focused, give quality and there shouldn't be a lot of waste," he said.

Real estate executives and facility managers at medium to large companies are sometimes way off when it comes to occupancy rates, says John Anderson. Most think their facilities are being used 80 or 90 percent of the time. Upon tracking the data, they are often surprised to learn that they are using their space less than 50 percent of the time.

Anderson is president and CEO of PeopleCube in Framingham, Mass. He provides resource and energy management technology for the workplace. Many of his 65 employees telecommute.

Anderson's office hoteling software allows employees to schedule activities to secure a work space or room or office as needed. Some take it a step further. A large PeopleCube client in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, put up telecommuting offices around the perimeter of the city from which employees can work several days a week without commuting into the city.

The office and employer of the future invite employee participation and collaboration, which is key, Anderson said.

"You input your own carbon footprint. For example, you don't own a cubicle so you rent one for a day. You set the air conditioning and lighting as you like, contributing to the carbon offset."

Facilities represent the second highest expense for large businesses and the No. 1 manufacturer of emissions, according Anderson. Many employers are paying too much to heat and cool conference rooms that are hardly used and to illuminate cubicles too often left empty. Allowing employees to telecommute from home at least part of the week could cut costs significantly.

Traditionally, tracking and analyzing data from workflow patterns involves looking backward. Anderson suggests a mind shift that would require companies to establish baselines before demonstrating and measuring savings going forward.

Using the data more efficiently can help lower carbon footprint by reducing real estate costs and increasing energy efficiency up to 30 percent, he said.

"You need to establish what your baselines are before you can demonstrate and measure savings going forward," Anderson said. "Companies are just starting to do that today."

John Larson remembers when a U.S. Interstate Highway collapsed three blocks from where he worked in Minneapolis-St Paul in 2007. There was an immediate reaction by politicians and transportation officials who needed to reroute hundreds of thousands of vehicles every day. If these commuters' companies had put a telecommuting plan in place, that problem could potentially have been solved almost instantly.

Larson is a spokesperson for Results-Only Working Environment, or ROWE, a new way of managing people developed by two women who worked in human resources at Best Buy. The idea of ROWE is to allow flexible schedules, forcing managers to concentrate on outcomes rather than hours.

Only a handful of companies have adopted the results-only philosophy. "But if ROWE became the status quo, it would have a tremendous impact on the environment," Larson said.

Anderson's 65 employees book conference space and cubicles on an as-needed basis, telecommuting when they don't need to be in the office.

Telecommuting is a huge incentive, PeopleCube's John Anderson said. It helps employees balance work and home life. Not having to drive an hour or more each way sometimes results in employees spending that saved commute-time working.

"After the salary, the number-one attraction is telecommuting," he said. "You're now dealing with millennial kids exiting college and they're very environmentally conscious. Employees want to know that their company is driving in those directions. It's a recruiting strategy too."

Employee participation can sound like a scary proposition for the traditional office scenario. There are two schools of thought regarding control, according to Anderson: One is that employees aren't going to help, so bosses have to force them to do what bosses want. The other is that the more employees are included in decision-making, the more they will help.

Educating employees about green office practices is vital, Anderson said.

"You'd be surprised what the employee population is willing to do," he said. "People are more willing to pitch in if you incent them to participate."

Incentives include funding transportation if employees leave their cars at home, bringing a homey feel into the office by having living-room type set-ups or having a Starbucks in the building.

Some of the more radical changes in green offices of the future have to do with amenities-based interiors and designs based around increased productivity. Think laundry room at the office so you don't have to send out.

Some banks, insurance and technology companies are creating positions for sustainability officers dedicated to reducing carbon footprint. Others resist, saying they want to be environmentally conscious but have to have a return on their investment in everything they do. Whether they're in stocks, paper recycling or can recycling, there's a prevailing mentality in the executive suite that if you're not in the office today, you're not really working.

"Our employees that telecommute are probably more productive than those that come in," Anderson said. "As long as I'm getting a day's work out of you I don't really care. Telecommuting has a high degree of success."

By Dana Sanchez

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