Web work: Way greener than you think?


Work is changing from a place to a network animated by ideas and enabled by a slew of collaboration tools. It’s a shift that’s analogous to the movement toward cloud computing, and it’s raising some questions.

The environmental impacts of the cloud is up for debate, with groups like Greenpeace pointing out the energy-slurping nature of data centers and other experts arguing for the greater energy efficiency of the cloud vs traditional computing. Remote work and collaboration demands a similar weighing of the scales. On one hand, think of all those car trips saved. On the other, think about all those servers quietly gobbling electricity as information flies across the globe. But is that the whole picture?

Writing for Forbes recently, Joe McKendrick asked if we’re oversimplifying the environmental case for the new way of work:

Perhaps there’s a broader perspective that needs to be taken as well. As a result of our move to an online economy, it’s possible that we’re saving more resources than we give ourselves credit for.  As many businesses are now digital, and operate virtually versus physically, there’s a potentially a significant degree of resource consumption that no longer takes place, that hasn’t been tracked.

Consider e-commerce, something that has been around in force for well over a decade now. How many physical retail stores have not been built, and do not operate, due to e-commerce?… Or consider other potential hidden benefits of the online economy. How many automobile trips and additional office space is no longer necessary due to telecommuting and remote work? How much travel is no longer necessary because of online college courses?  How many trees are no longer cut down because of electronic documents, PDFs, and collaborative solutions?  How much drilling and digging is no longer required to find resources, due to better data on seismic formations and simulations?  How much travel among insurance claims adjusters has been saved because of mobile and Internet technologies? The list could go on and on.

In addition to the under-recognized environmental benefits suggested by McKendrick, there is also the possibility that new ways of working will cause what Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, called “a fundamental shift in our relationship with stuff,” in her TED talk.

In the talk, she predicts that more and more businesses will make their money by using the Internet to give us convenient access to things rather than ownership of them. This allows for less waste as people use only what they need. (Netflix and Zipcar are examples of the concept.) And what the Internet is doing for consumers, collaboration and the cloud may do for workers and office stuff.

Rather than have a company assign me temporary ownership of “my” cube,” “my” documents and “my” software, this new way of working allows employees to dip into shared resources at will. You don’t have a single desk that’s yours, but should you need to come in and collaborate, you can sign out a collaboration pod, for example. By allowing companies to focus less on providing vast quantities of cubes and PCs and instead on providing more limited, targeted, high-quality resources, the change could decrease the environmental footprint of work.

In your opinion, will the future of work be more or less green than we generally imagine?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Office Now.

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