The Downsides of the Modern, Flexible Workplace

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Yesterday I was rambling about the environmental (and social) benefits of flextime, and we already know that there are many good reasons to telecommute. But I wonder if there might also be some downsides to society's newer ways of working?Take telecommuting, for example. On the one hand, working from home saves a huge amount of gas, not to mention time spent in rush hour. And it eases congestion for everyone else. But there's a downside for the planet too. I've met more than one person who regularly works from their vacation home in France, Florida or wherever, enjoying the increased mobility of the modern workplace to fly South for the summer.

On a personal level it all sounds quite dreamy, checking your emails as you lounge by the Mediterranean, but even the penguins know that aviation has a large environmental footprint. At what point do the second home owners and modern nomads cancel out the fuel savings from reduced rush hour commutes?

And increased flying isn't the only downside. By working from home we also turn our backs on some of the efficiency benefits of collective spaces. Heating and lighting 30 homes takes a lot more energy than one office. In fact, one UK study went as far as to suggest that telecommuting is less efficient than office working for this very reason. Lloyd had his doubts when he reported on this study—pointing out that it was based on UK statistics where commutes are shorter and folks are more careful about turning down the thermostat when they go to work. But it is food for thought.

Working from home can be a great step toward greener living, but only if you do it right. Take a look at my thoughts on how to green your telecommute to get started. (I should note that those of us who work entirely from home can also boast extra savings in terms of the embodied energy that would normally be involved in building our offices.)

Carbon emissions and energy use aside, I think it's also worth considering the social implications of our new working practices. While many of us, myself included, find ourselves freer than ever, and enjoy that freedom by spending time with our families, and shaping our schedules to suite our lifestyles, we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't recognize the drawbacks.

Most notably, I think, is the notion that if you never go to work, you never really leave either, and if you can flex your time to suite you, you can also flex it to suite your employer or your clients. I'm often amazed at how many contacts and colleagues answer emails on the weekends, on vacation, or in the middle of the night. It sometimes seems like we've entered an arms race in which the end result is mutually assured inbox-congestion.

As my colleague Jerry Stifelman and I suggested in our manifesto for slow business, the new working environment offers many opportunities for both sustainability and self-expression. But it's up to each of us to shape our work environment to ensure contentment, joy, inspiration and respect for the world around us. If we do it right, it'll also result in better work too.

It's OK to put the blackberry down from time to time. Really...

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