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How much does home-working really cost?

IBM has just released a white paper, Energy and low carbon:More haste, less waste [PDF], in which it argues that organisations' second biggest cost after labour is electricity, and that they need to do something about it. IBM has suggestions -- but who will end up paying for IBM's solution?

IBM has just released a white paper, Energy and low carbon: More haste, less waste [PDF], in which it argues that organisations' second biggest cost after labour is electricity, and that they need to do something about it. IBM has suggestions -- but who will end up paying for IBM's solution?

In addition to the arguments about how reducing costs enhances the bottom line -- since when has reducing costs not been at the top of any business manager's mind? -- IBM layers on issues such as sustainability and how we need to reduce our energy consumption generally.

There's little to argue with there; even if a business manager doesn't care about sustainability, it's a nice-to-have plus-point tucked in your back pocket for marketing purposes.

Solutions include buying more efficient devices, such as multi-function devices instead of separate printers, photocopiers and faxes (people still buy fax machines?), and outsourcing building maintenance. The white paper points out that these are easy gains and that the harder one is changing organisational culture.

This is where it all starts to get messy.

The culture shift includes moving desks around so that office and desk space is "used more flexibly and imaginatively through the adoption of shift working and hot-desking". This is then coupled with the idea of looking for "evidence of employee demand for more home working opportunities".

In a large organisation, people often find it hard to identify with the organisation's wider goals. They might struggle to see how a company that might be making millions or even billions in profits will be dented by not turning the lights off for a few hours. They perhaps don't see the bigger picture.

But a picture will come quickly into focus if they're asked to work at home so the company can downsize its office space. What they will perceive is a loss of benefit of working in a nice warm office where they have a number of rights in return for a salary and spending half their waking hours doing things for other people's benefit.

They'll also wonder why it is that MegaCorp can't afford its electricity bill, when theirs will indubitably rise as a result of their spending more time at home: this is not a warm country, so there'll be bigger heating bills, as well as a loss of amenity such as the social aspects of working in a office.

When you consider the research which suggests that most of us meet our partners in or around the workplace, you'd also have to wonder what other knock-on effects the wholesale adoption of such a policy might have.

And would the carbon emissions resulting from heating and lighting employees' individual homes be less than that for a communal workspace? It seems unlikely, which undermines the sustainability argument somewhat.

Lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I work at home, have done for ten years. It was my choice and I don't miss commuting, not even slightly. It's worth the extra costs of heating. But I do still miss the social aspect of the workplace.

IBM has got it about right from an accounting point of view, I suspect -- but only because it's looked only at the money. Read with care.