Rising energy costs may usher in workplace changes

P&G cuts travel spending 15 per cent with virtual meetings, and other US$4-a-gallon stories from IT managers

The tipping point on fuel prices arrived about a month ago for Bill Lucas, an engineer in the IT department at US-based utility We Energies. He stopped using his car for his 35-minute commute and now takes a bus, which costs only US$2.50 each way, thanks in part to a ticket subsidy from his employer. Lucas says he has a lot of company on his bus rides.

At the corporate level, the escalating cost of petroleum products has IT departments at companies such as The Procter & Gamble expanding their videoconferencing capabilities. The technology has helped P&G reduce corporate travel spending over the past year by 15 per cent, said Marta Foster, vice president of business solutions, global business services, at the US-based company.

Escalating fuel prices are forcing all kinds of changes by individuals and companies. In interviews at Forrester Research's IT Forum 2008 conference, about a dozen IT managers and senior staff said their companies are either exploring or implementing telecommuting, as well as turning to, more often than not, virtual-meeting technologies.

There is also an awareness of risks for companies that don't take such steps, especially in employee hiring and retention.

Mark Wilson, a managing consultant at Delta Initiative, said some clients consider the length of a job candidate's commute in a hiring decision.

"Our clients believe attrition is very connected to the amount of miles [employees] have to drive to work," said Wilson, who added that companies may be more inclined to hire someone with a shorter commute in the belief that a long, expensive commute "is going to wear on them sooner or later." His company provides IT enterprise consulting.

Jim Bagozzi, associate vice president of business solutions at Canada-based Canadian Tire Corp, said his company is also moving toward expanding telework. The company has already found that in hiring some people with specialized skills, it has had to make it possible for them to work from remote offices rather than commute to headquarters, he said.

Telework is "a fairly new concept for us," said Bagozzi. He noted that Canadians are already on their way to paying what amounts to US$5 a gallon for gas. In Toronto, for instance, gas prices are around $1.25 (Canadian) per litre.

David Trumble, an enterprise architect at a company he asked not be named, said gas prices will likely limit the geographic radius of job candidates.

Trumble, who works in the Boston area, said it wouldn't be uncommon to hire people living in Southern New Hampshire, but he doesn't believe prospective job candidates will want to deal with a commute of 40 to 50 miles. "Time-wise it's reasonable, but cost-wise it really doesn't add up," he said.

Fred Balliet, who works on global IT strategy at London-based AstraZeneca, a global pharmaceutical firm, said his company already has a "fantastic" work/life program that includes flexible schedules and telework arrangements.

Balliet, who is based in the US, said the response to rising energy costs has been to increase use of virtual communications and meeting tools. He has cut back on his travel to Europe, as have others at the company.

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