Mobile phone company O2 has released the results of a flexible working pilot. It’s the result of an experiment the company conducted in early February in which the entire head office work force was asked to work away from the office for a day. A quarter of O2’s 12,000 employees worked remotely as the doors were shut and lights turned off at the HQ.
The purpose was not primarily about sustainability, though. The idea was to push the boundaries of what is possible through flexible working, particularly in the light of the expected travel disruption London is expecting during the Olympic Games this summer.
In the event more than 2,500 people worked away from the office with only 125 essential staff left in the building (plus one person who apparently didn’t know anything about the pilot). Everyone who needed to get online and communicate was able to do so and 88% of staff said that they were at least as productive as on a normal day at the office. In fact 36% claimed to have been more productive, while 16% slept a bit longer than usual and 14% spent additional time with their families.
The IT infrastructure stood up well, although there had been specific preparations and training for the day. In all 80% of the workforce used the company’s VPN, with a peak of 162% of normal traffic, and instant messaging was up over 40%, but the helpdesk had a normal day.
The environmental impact was a saving of 12.2 tonnes of CO2e emissions (equivalent to 42,000 miles in a diesel car), which helped with O2’s three year sustainability plan. A total of 2,000 hours of commuting time was saved – an average of 45 minutes per employee – with an overall cost saving of £9000 to employees, mostly in commuting. The company’s electricity consumption decreased by 12% (although it would have increased a lot at employees homes) and there was a 53% drop in water usage.
Of course the more people that work from home the more they’re likely to use their mobile phones, so this ‘pilot’ is as much a marketing exercise as anything else. O2 said that it hoped the exercise would showcase the business case for flexible working.
Nonetheless, O2 itself claims to have saved over £3m in overheads through its flexible working methods, in line with the company’s three year plan. The plan’s aim is to help over 125,000 employees work flexibly and collectively save over 500,000 miles of travel and over 160,000 thousand tonnes of carbon emissions.
But it has to be said that calculating the environmental savings from flexible working is neither obvious nor straightforward. For example, gas usage in O2’s HQ building increased slightly on the work-from-home day, probably due to the loss of body heat in the building. If this were part of a longer-term plan you would expect a downsizing of the HQ so heating costs would decrease. On the other hand, there would have been a significant increase in the energy used by employees at home.
The bottom line is that savings will depend very much on the type of company and employees, its location and transportation routes, since commuting is the main savings. What the pilot tried to show is that flexible working will work on a large scale. The added benefit is in the time saved for employees - a happier workforce is also a more productive workforce.