UNEP: Distance Working

There's a lot to be said for distance working. It can unlock impressive carbon savings, at relatively little cost, and a range of other benefits too, both for staff and the organizations they work in. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been studying how it might all add up at the Paris office of its Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE).

This would not be a venture into uncharted territory; many organizations, particularly in the private sector, already offer their employees distance working options, and developments in communications technology have made it much easier to work effectively away from the office. Studies elsewhere have shown how it can cut operational costs (for example reduced real estate costs and lower utility bills) and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). Other reported benefits include improved motivation and productivity among staff and a better work life balance. What's more, the reality of distance working is already something that UN staff experience when working online during missions. Many are used to it and would not take long to adapt to this modern way of working.

For all these reasons, distance working appeared to be one potentially efficient and attractive way of responding to the UN Secretary-General's call in 2007 for a climate neutral United Nations. So the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) unit brought in a consulting firm to do a feasibility study for the UNEP/DTIE office in Paris, where SUN itself is based.

This study showed significant interest among professional staff, and the opportunity for savings in operational costs and significant cuts in GHG emissions. In order to estimate the value of these benefits, six different scenarios (labelled A to F in the table below) were set up for UNEP/DTIE, based on the existing UN rules and regulations that allow up to two days per week of distance work on an ad hoc basis.

Table showing scenarios set up for the study: 

Distance work scenarios setup in the study
Number of days per week working away from office Percentage of staff enrolled in a regular distance w
10% 30% 50%
1 day A B C
2 days D E F

The study showed an increase in savings with every increase in the percentage of staff enrolled, and the more days worked away from the office. Even with the existing UN ad hoc limit of two days per week, substantial savings can be achieved if half the staff are regular distance workers. The study also showed that such a scheme would not necessarily be expensive to implement. Much of the required technology (particularly for communication) is already available in most offices, and scheduled upgrades could accommodate the requirements of a distance working scheme.

Table showing estimated operational and carbon dioxide emission reductions from a regular distance working scheme:

Estimated reductions in operational costs and emissions
Scenarios A B C D E F
Estimated operational costs reductions (%) 0.86% 2.68% 4.50% 1.72% 5.36% 9.01%
Estimated emissions reductions (tC02eq) 1.57 4.90 8.22 3.14 9.79 16.45

There are pitfalls, of course. Mistrust and misunderstandings can arise when organizations implement distance working without proper guidance for staff on how to adapt to it, or without giving enough consideration to simple rules on costs, the content of work, tasks, responsibilities, reporting and communications. Moreover, not all staff may want to work from a distance, and not all supervisors are able or willing to adjust their management patterns to it.

So there is a real need to carry out a detailed feasibility study, followed by a clear and concrete implementation plan, before putting any distance working scheme into practice. The feasibility study should evaluate the willingness and preparedness of staff and managers for distance working, the availability of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment, energy and GHG emissions audits, and administrative aspects and processes. The broader context for each location must also be carefully assessed – the quality and availability of internet connections, and security considerations, among other things.

Costs and benefits

Costs need not be high, whereas the benefits can be substantial, including:

•    Lower operational and maintenance costs, particularly rent-related costs
•    Reduced GHG emissions from energy consumption in the office and staff commuting.
•    Better work life balance for staff
•    Increased happiness and staff retention
•    Room to develop a new working environment within the office to promote staff interaction and productivity
•    Work can continue when travel is restricted by bad weather, a pandemic or local sickness
“Distance working is just a better way of doing your work,” says Niclas Svenningsen, Head of the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) unit. “It is better for efficiency, for the environment, and for staff satisfaction, at the same time as it reduces costs for the organization. Distance working is really just another way of taking advantage of technology that has already been here for several years.”