Green activist slams government's teleworking policy

Jonathon Porritt, ex-director of Friends of the Earth, has criticised government reports on teleworking as 'tokenist'

An environmental charity has called on the UK government to revise its policy on teleworking and encourage organisations to use it as part of their environmental policy.

On Wednesday Forum for the Future launched a report on teleworking which showed how it can be used to reduce the impact that companies have on the environment and promote sustainable economic development.

Jonathon Porritt, the programme director of the charity, said government reports on teleworking do not have enough information on how it can be used to improve sustainability. In particular, he criticised a report produced by the Department for Trade and Industry in 2003, entitled Telework Guidance, and a report by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as respectively having "tokenistic references" and "only the odd tokenistic paragraph" on how businesses should use teleworking to reduce their environmental impact.

"The government in every level has got to stop pussy-footing around with sustainable development and embed in its practice," said Porritt.

The charity's report, entitled "Encouraging Green Teleworking", found that teleworking reduces the need for transport and will therefore contribute to achieving the government's targets on cutting carbon dioxide emissions. This is a necessity for the government after its admission on Wednesday that it will fail to meet its target on cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2010 -- something Porritt didn't duck during his speech.

"The Prime Minister thinks it's a pretty ambitious goal to achieve its climate change goal of 20 percent," said Porritt. "Well, so do I when I look at the government policy."

Sun, which commissioned the charity's report and has had a teleworking policy for five years, initially started its policy on teleworking due to the problems of traffic congestion during the dot-com boom, according to Richard Barrington, the head of government affairs at Sun.

"Part of the reason we started doing this was because of congestion," said Barrington at the launch event. "We did it purely because people were just sat in cars on roads. We started with drop-in centres along motorways -- industrial units where we had scattered technology."

Employees at Sun save two hours commuting time per week through teleworking, according to the report.

Companies can also save money by cutting down on the amount of office space needed. Sun has reduced its office space needs by 25 percent in the last four years through teleworking, according to the report.

But one environmental downsides of teleworking is that it requires more hardware, which requires extra resources to produce and creates more waste. One way to minimise this impact is for companies to use thin clients. Barrington said that a significant number of Sun employees in the States are already using thin clients at home and it is in the process of rolling out thin clients to home workers across the UK.

Porritt said that the technology side of teleworking is something which is likely to attract the government. "There's one bit of the sustainability that the government should like -- teleworking -- because its wonderously high-tech and glossy…it's lots of whizzy machines."

One important aspect of implementing teleworking is change management, something which Barrington says Sun is still dealing with.

"We still have a significant percentage of managers who don't like this, who think 'If I can't see, I can't manage, as I don't know what you're doing,'" said Barrington. "But if you treat people like adults or grown-ups, they tend to respond in kind."

Porritt has had a long involvement with environmental issues in the UK -- he was the Chairman of the Green Party in the 80s, was the director of Friends of the Earth for a number of years until he left in 1996 to set up Forum for the Future. He was appointed chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, the government's independent advisory body on sustainable development, in 2000.

In response to Porritt's comments, the government said that it was focused on giving companies practical advice on teleworking.

"Of course we recognise there are very important environmental benefits to teleworking. The guidance last year was intended for practical use for employers and employees," said a DTI spokesman.

Click here to download a free copy of the report.