Liberate The Workforce: Exploring Telecommuting as a Response to Peak Oil

Posted: November 6, 2008 in Uncategorized

“…we need to liberate the workforce, pay by productivity, let people work when they want, where they want”

– Matt Simmons

I’ll probably talk a lot about Matt Simmons on this blog given how important his contributions to the Peak Oil community have been.  In this particular video, watch closely near 4:00 min mark where he’s talking about solutions.  In every presentation, speech or interview I’ve seen of Matt Simmons, he always mentions liberating the workforce.  By radically upscaling the quantity and quality of work-from-home arrangements, considerable amounts of petroleum could conserved.  It is my belief that telecommuting would have one of the highest cost/benefit calculations as a rational response to declining amounts of oil.  It was when I reflected on my last job, that I realized how dependent many current work arrangements are on the automobile, and at the same time, how utterly unnecessary this situation actually was.

I was working in computer sales in Toronto.  My co-workers would be driving from places like Ajax which is almost 45km away.  All we did was answer phones, takes orders and book them using our laptops.  The only technology required to do my job was was a laptop, an internet connection and a phone.  And yet, people were trying almost 90 km round trip to come to work everyday.  It made absolutely no sense to me.  The amount of energy consumed driving to and from work every single day, simply cannot justify the benefits for much longer, I thought.  

Think about it – when your employees start spending a sizeable chunk of their take-home pay on getting to and from work, you can be damn sure it’s going to have some consequences.  From the employee’s perspective, their stressed because they’re tight on funds and gas is expensive.  From the employers perspective, they’ve got a disgruntled employee, and slumping sales because of the general slowdown in economic activity.  


A reasonable and logical response would be that we tackle our collective energy problems by picking the low hanging fruit first.  It would be a disgrace for us to not implement the solutions which will have the largest and most immediate impact.  A radical upscaling of the telecommuting infrastructure that would allow a much larger percentage of the labour force to work from home, would cost substantially less than it would to re-engineer the entire industrial capital stock into so-called “sustainable” alternatives.  In fact, much of the infrastructure is already in place.  Computer ownership in the United States & Canada is extremely high.  Broadband Internet access is also very high.  It seems to me that we could substantially reduce our energy bandwidth, by sustantially expanding our information bandwidth.  Granted, this would put additional strain on the electric system, as higher computer use would ultimately result in more power consumption, but the improtant point is that it would radically reduce our dependency on liquid fuels, which is the largest and most proximate issue facing the world.  

One of the most important things to consider with respect to instituting a radical upscaling of long-distance and other creative work arrangements is an understanding of the dominant frameworks surrounding the sociology of work & industry.  In future posts, I will discuss various sociological as well as pscyhological views about the workplace and the dynamic between management and labour.  The objective will be to understand the dominant ideological assumptions about how workplaces are to be organized, what the proper relationship between management and labour should be, and so on.  By understanding why workplaces are the way they are, the process of reforming the institution of “work” to an energy constrained future will be considerably enhanced.  


– a.j.m. 

  1. I appreciate your article and your suggestions regarding alternate approaches to access work. It is important, however, to let go of the belief that work from home is the only form of remote working we might develop. For those that have mastered home based offices, please continue by all means. BUT for the vast number of knowledge workers who are still bound by the single location office environment, may I suggest an alternative.

    Given the current economic circumstances, the pressures on our transportation infrastructure and our concerns about the environment, investment in new ways to use information and communications technologies will yield multiple benefits. Now, more than ever, we must consider the potential to employ telecommunications infrastructure with greater usefulness. A logical starting point is to develop a more effective, secure and holistic approach to workforce deployment.
    Distributed workplace, a network of strategically based work centers, is a higher order model than today’s teleworking approaches. These work centers contain multiple suites with each suite dedicated to 15-50 employees from one company or agency. With a dozen or more tenant organizations, each work center supports 500 to 1000 employees. Each work center is connected to other work centers and employers’ locations using dedicated, secure broadband technologies. By creating economies of scale, a central support technical staff provides infrastructure, training and security to the various work center clients. Community based work centers create the building blocks for other value added services such as workforce development, distance learning, telemedicine, and day care programs.

    Every center will be unique based upon each community’s individual requirements.

    Each dollar invested in advanced telecommunications solutions expands access between employers and their knowledge based employees. Additionally, this results in improving access on our transportation infrastructure through congestion mitigation. Investments in creating new approaches to connect communities will improve mobility giving employees access to work from within their local communities immediately reducing reliance on fossil fuels and converting gasoline dollars into local economy dollars. These local economy dollars have a multiplier effect that will spawn a more rapid economic recovery.
    Employers will find that a network of work centers will provide security for data systems and employees, while improving emergency preparedness and continuity of operations planning. As the recovery from recession takes hold, employers that have developed a network of distributed offices will find it easier to retain its existing employees and to attract new ones.
    In order to leverage telecommunications infrastructure effectively, aggregate demand and opportunities must be assessed to achieve economies of scale. The initial focus on workforce deployment requires an understanding of the aggregate geographic hiring patterns of the area’s major employers. Mapping the knowledge based workplace and assessing corresponding geographic density patterns is the first step.
    The tenor of the new administration is to fund effective infrastructure programs. This new leadership also has enunciated an understanding of telecommunication’s growing significance. Effective telecommunications solutions have the shortest timeframe to implement and the greatest potential for rapid economic gain. Connecting communities in support of government and commercial employers lends itself to funding under public-private partnerships. Communities that develop a collective approach to problem solving using telecommunications resources will differentiate themselves from other communities’ infrastructure proposals, accelerate their economic recovery and create a more sustainable balance of transportation (mobility), land use (proximity) and telecommunications (connectivity) methods of access.

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