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Would you believe me if I told you that we could take a big step to combating climate change simply by staying home from work? Rather, I should say, staying home and working.

Call it “telecommuting.” Call it “virtual work.” Call it “working from home.” Call it “netWork.” I’m going to call it “telework,” and here’s how it could be both a key climate solution and also an incredible business boost.

Last year, I co-wrote a book called The Custom-Fit Workplace, which is about how everyone needs work that fits their life, and how employers are well-served to create a workplace that respects their workers lives. In doing so, they’re rewarded with more productive, resilient, and profitable businesses.

After the book was published, I was speaking with a small gathering of climate change leaders. During this chat I realized that one component of the “custom-fit work initiative” could well be the biggest short term opportunity we have to address climate change. This component is, of course, telework.

The environmental benefits are obvious: teleworkers don’t commute, meaning their cars don’t log the 32 miles per day roundtrip that is the American average (according to this 2005 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post), and thus don't emit all that carbon.

And the benefits to workers are clear: consider how many people would prefer the flexibility and comfort of working from home.

But how exactly is it good for businesses? Study after study has shown that giving employees flexibility in where, when, and how they work is good for a business’s bottom line.

Look at IBM. The global computing giant has saved $700 million in real estate costs by allowing one quarter of its employees worldwide to work from home.

Their savings are far from unique. AT&T’s New Jersey operations have saved over $5 million by transitioning 600 employees to teleworker. In 1996, Bell Atlantic reported that telecommuting saved between $1,500 and $5,000 per teleworker per year. JetBlue’s customer service is now based in primarily in the workers’ homes. Same with 1-800-CONTACTS. The list of smart businesses saving big goes on and on.

There are other business benefits too. In this new networked era, why restrict your recruiting to a small radius around your central offices? The best, most highly motivated talent may not live 20 miles away. Employers can now hire a star employee or retain a key employee without being confined by geography.

The gains here -- business, economic, environmental -- are huge, and they are immediately accessible. Research recently released by the Telework Research Network suggests that 40% of American workers are in roles that could be managed part-time or more through telework, and that 79% of those workers would accept this opportunity if it were offered. Given these numbers,TRN projects the benefits to the economy and environment if all of these workers with telework-compatible jobs were allowed and enabled to work from home half-time:

  1. U.S. businesses would save $436 billion dollars a year.
  2. 52.8 Million Metric Tons of greenhouse gasses would be cut.
  3. 288 million fewer barrels of oil a year would be consumed, reducing our foreign trade deficit.

As far as climate solutions go in this age of partisan deadlock, teleworking appeals equally across the ideological spectrum. (Need proof? Check out this Forbes op-ed I co-wrote with avowed conservative Ralph Benko.) Apolitical, great for business, and hugely popular? Teleworking might well be the best immediate opportunity we have, right now, to make serious headway reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and combating climate change.

Cross posted at OnEarth

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