In August, my husband and I attended a speech given by Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of the new book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” While we have always been aware of the need to go green, we left his speech convinced of the dire consequences if individuals, businesses and governments don’t radically change the way we use our resources.
One of the points Friedman emphasized was that for innovation in alternative energy sources to continue, the price of gas and other fuels needed to rise. Otherwise, the economic return would not be enough to justify the increased costs for companies to invest in development. At that time, gas was inching toward $4 a gallon, and the economic collapse seemed to be isolated and contained.
Oh what a difference four months makes. A recent article by Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times confirmed my fears: Economic Slump May Limit Moves on Clean Energy. Because of the global economic downturn, doubts are growing about commitments to cap emissions or phase out polluting factories. With gas at $2 a gallon, Americans will be less likely to stop driving their SUVs, and Europeans argue they can’t afford to address the financial crisis and reduce emissions.
Let’s assume that 50% of the hot, flat and crowded future scenarios that Friedman presented in his lecture are valid. We don’t have the luxury of putting our efforts to improve environmental sustainability on hold while we sort out our finances. And the good news is that we don’t have to. Unfortunately, none of the proposals related to reducing emissions that Rosenthal cited in the New York Times included the one strategy that will cost the least amount of money: increasing flexibility in where, when, and how work is done.
Rosenthal wrote about the environmental proposal presented by President-elect Obama. It called for “the country to build wind farms, and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and alternative energy technologies.” Nowhere did it mention reducing emissions and consumption of fossil fuels by implementing a broad-reaching work+life flexibility strategy. So what would that look like?
I originally wrote about a national work+life flexibility strategy back in May 2008 in response to predictions that gas could reach $10 a gallon. It’s an approach that would allow us to make progress on environmental sustainability without incurring the costs related to expensive carbon caps or factory conversions and closures:
There is one powerful solution that leaders could implement today. It would have a guaranteed positive impact, not only on the environment but also on the people and organizations using it—work+life flexibility. Isolated efforts have started such as the UK’s Work from Home Day on May 15th, Houston’s Flex in the City, and the state of Georgia letting employees work from home one day a week. But to have a meaningful impact, it needs to be broader. It needs to be national. Therefore, if I were the President of the United States, I would propose that starting June 1, 2008:
1) Everyone with a job that could be done from home would coordinate with their leader and team to determine one day of the week to telecommute.
Impact: Because people are still working full-time there would be no decrease in productivity, and fewer people commuting. The group undress4success just released an interesting review of research on the estimated energy savings from telecommuting and it is truly astounding.
2) Everyone who sets up a home office would be able to write off the cost on their taxes.
Impact: Shifting costs from the individual and employer to the government would provide a strong incentive to get the proper equipment for telecommuting.
3) For those who don’t have jobs that can be done remotely or who would prefer not to work from home (believe it or not there are many people for whom this is the case), set up three staggered shifts. This would reduce the number of people commuting at the same time. These shifts could run from 5:00 am to 1:00 pm, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm; and then 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm. As I have written before, there is no longer any reason we all need to commute at the same time (here).
Impact: Reduces energy consumed sitting in traffic; increases the efficient use of roads and public transportation by spreading it more evenly throughout the day; provides more global coverage across time zones for businesses, and allows people to work when they are at their best, e.g. morning people in the earliest shift, and night owls in the later shift.
Implementing strategic work+life flexibility will require organizations, leaders and individuals to fundamentally rethink the way they work, live, and manage their businesses. As I have often written (here, here and here), the bottom-line payoffs go far beyond environmental sustainability, and are critical for not just surviving, but thriving during this economic downturn.
As Thomas Friedman so clearly and eloquently points out, we can not let the challenges of this recession keep us from making headway with the environment. If we do, the future will make what we are going through right now look like a vacation. So, spread the word about work+life flexibility as a low-cost way to keep the environmental momentum going.
What do you think? Do you hear people talking about work+life flexibility, or flexibility in where, when and how work is done, as part of a comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability?