Sun’s telework program reduces energy, boosts employee power

Sun Microsystems Inc. is an old hand when it comes to telework: It’s been growing its telecommuting ranks through its Open Work program for a decade, and today nearly 19,000 employees – 56 per cent of Sun’s employee population – work from home or in a flexible office.

With that experience comes plenty of knowledge about which jobs are best suited for teleworking, what technologies make it work and how to train home-based employees and their managers.

But there was one question Sun couldn’t answer until now: Does teleworking really save energy, or does it just transfer energy consumption and costs to employees?

“We sell servers that are improving the carbon footprint,” said Kristi McGee, senior director for Sun’s Open Work services group. “Can we really say the same thing about how our employees are working?

Are we really reducing the carbon footprint of our employees and saving money, or are we merely transferring costs from the company to the employees who work from home?”

The company launched a study to measure how much energy is consumed while working in a Sun office, while working at home and while commuting to and from a Sun office.

It outfitted study participants with P3 International Corp.’s Kill A Watt meter, a kilowatt-hour monitor that taps into a power supply and measures electricity consumption at a workstation.

In comparing home and work energy use, the company found that the rate at which office equipment consumed energy in a Sun office was twice that of home office equipment. Study participants averaged approximately 64 watts per hour at home, compared with 130 watts per hour at a Sun office.

Employees who eliminated the commute to a Sun office also slashed their carbon footprints, McGee said. Sun found that commuting accounted for more than 98 per cent of each employee’s work-related carbon footprint; running office equipment made up less than 1.7 per cent of a person’s total work-related carbon emissions.

By telecommuting 2.5 days per week, an employee could reduce the amount of energy used for work by the equivalent of 5,400 kilowatt-hours each year.

“Not only did we find that the energy used by working in the office was about twice as much as what was used when working from home, which was a significant difference, but we also found a huge impact [from] the energy consumption used in the commute,” McGee said.

By working at home 2.5 days a week, the average employee can also benefit from reduced travel, saving more than $1,700 annually in gasoline and vehicle wear and tear.

Metrics like that are driving greater interest in the popular Open Work program, McGee said. “There’s a lot of support for the program from employees because of the flexibility that it offers, the work/life balance benefits that it provides. That has been the big attractor from an employee perspective over the long term. Now, it’s the cost of gas that is coming to the fore.

“Employees are becoming more assertive about asking to work from home, or work flexibly, if they haven’t already,” she said.

On the IT front, Sun depends on a few key technologies to keep its mobile staff working smoothly. A cornerstone of the program is Sun’s own Sun Ray thin clients, for example, which have been deployed in most offices on Sun’s campuses. Employees can reserve an office at any Sun location when they want to work on-site.

This concept of “hoteling” is managed via a central reservation system. Workers can reserve an office when they need one and then simply log on to the resident Sun Ray machine to gain access to the applications and files they need, McGee says.

For mobile users who work primarily outside of Sun offices, “laptops are provisioned with what we call our Open Work stack,” McGee says. “It provides them their e-mail, calendar, browser, VPN, file-syncing capabilities. It’s all centrally managed on the back end by the Sun Ray servers.”

The company is saving about $24 million each year by using the thin-client technology, because it is simpler to administer and the devices are more energy efficient than traditional PCs, McGee said.

The real payback for Sun, however, is in real estate: Over the past six years, the company has saved roughly $387 million in reduced office space and utility costs because so many employees are working from flexible locations.

“We just don’t need as much real estate, because we don’t have assigned offices that are sitting empty when people are working from home or in another Sun location,” McGee said.

For companies that might be considering more telecommuting options for their employees, McGee stressed the importance of training.

“It can be a big change for managers. If your experience has been managing by ‘line of sight,’ where you see your employees come in every day and you know they’re there, it’s a big switch to manage remotely. It requires a different set of skills, and companies need to make sure their managers are prepared for that and can develop the skills that they need to manage remotely.”

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