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Oil, telecommuting and ecommerce

Over the last few years, I've been watching the situation relating to oil supplies with great interest. Aside from the environmental concerns, issues relating to oil do have a major effect on my ecommerce activities in terms of currency exchange rates and general online buying behavior. The more people are paying at the pump, the less they can spend online.

Hubbert's Peak

I'm a great believer in Hubbert's Peak, which was brought to my attention by a friend of my partner, Len Hart - an accomplished journalist and programmer. Basically, Hubbert's Peak was the result of a study carried in 1956 relating to the world's oil reserves. It included a projection as to when pumping the oil out of the ground would start becoming cost prohibitive due to dwindling supplies and the resulting downturn in production was graphed. I firmly believe we are seeing this now. Many oil producers are currently pumping lower grade oil and promises by cartels of supply boosts aren't really being met. 

Aside from the increasing demand placed on supplies by emerging economies such as China, it's my opinion that many investors are becoming aware of the Hubbert's Peak study and it's scaring them. Scared investors equals scary times ahead for our oil hungry world.

Telecommuting - my experience

The practice of working for a company from a decentralized location (usually a home office) is called "telecommuting" or "telework". As someone who works in ecommerce full time from a home office arrangement, it's given me plenty of first hand experience and opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing our capitalistic, high-tech society. 

In my family, I have one daughter who currently attends school. She sometimes drives to school or "car pools" with my partner. My partner attends university - which is around a 40 minute drive from here. Thankfully, the university also puts a great deal of coursework and lectures online - a great time (and gas) saver. My partner can also communicate with lecturers via email. My other daughter drives to the train station each day and then commutes to the city. 

As for me, I roll out of bed and then into my job :).

A few years ago, I was well entrenched in daily commutes to the city. I worked out that I was spending *10 whole days* of my life each year in traveling to and from work.  My 10 days of travel per year was quite insignificant compared to many others. My eldest daughter loses twice that and I have colleagues who lose even more.

Now think of those sorts of losses in a scale of millions. What a waste of human life, productivity and fossil fuels - not to mention other negative impacts on our environment!

I hear the cries of "pump more oil!" as a solution to the rising prices; but really what we need to do is to reduce the amount we need. Economical cars are great, so is alternative energy; but these alone at their current rate of implementation will not prevent the massive crunch I see coming very soon. 

Governments and big business aren't going to be fast enough to implement the alternative energy solutions that they have had hidden away for years. They've been too busy milking the last bucks from black gold and missed the cue. It's up to us as individuals and business owners more than ever.

Enter the web.

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Telework - environmentally friendly 

There was much talk about telecommuting/telework some years ago; but it seems to have died down a lot in ecommerce related news stories in recent times. It's a method of doing business and working that's growing, but by no means fast enough - even with the advent of high speed connections, instant messaging and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).

It's time that telecommuting was brought to the forefront again - not just as technology for technology's sake, or as a way of cutting costs in running a business, or as being employee friendly - but also as part of an overall environmental solution.

Next time you're heading to work/your place of business on a train or you're caught in peak hour traffic, take a look around you. So many of your fellow commuters (and perhaps yourself) could be working their jobs quite effectively from a home office. Also, how many of those cars you see have only one person in them?

Sure, telecommuting is not *the* solution to all our energy woes, but imagine the oil that could be saved with even an extra 1% of the entire workforce telecommuting. That 1% may just buy enough time for our society to avoid *massive* problems caused by oil shortages while governments scramble to roll out alternatives.

There are so many jobs in our society which really don't need us to be stuck in an office or storefront. I think it's also become abundantly apparent over the past few years that consumers are becoming very comfortable with online shopping and transactions. 

As the price of gas continues to escalate, consumers may become even more accepting of ecommerce. After all, why drive an hour to get to a store when you can order the product online in just a few clicks? The soaring price of gas could actually help convert more people to online shopping in the not too distant future, but at present I think it's holding back spending a little - by and large, we are still used to jumping in the car and traveling to a store; it's just an ingrained habit.

If you have a bricks and mortar business, consider whether any of your staff could work from home - even if it were just 1 day a week. You'll not only help reduce the use of a rapidly diminishing resource, but you may also discover that your staff appreciates it and it cuts down on your employee related costs.

Fear of lack of productivity is often a major block to companies trying telecommuting strategies; but like any other business process, it just needs to be carefully researched before implementation. The important aspect for businesses to keep in mind is that success should be gauged on results, not the activity of the telecommuter.

Governments and telecommuting

It's also about time that various governments put their money where their mouth is in relation to telecommuting. Business who have telecommuting employees should get some sort of support - be it in terms of savings on associated equipment or tax breaks.

Governments themselves also need to get more of their employees involved in telework practices. According to a 2004 US Office of Personnel Management report, in  2003 there were 751,844 employees eligible for all/part of their work hours to be carried out via telecommuting, yet only 102,921 were. This is even though other surveys showed that 87% of eligible federal employees were interested in working via this means.

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The media's role

The media should also play a role in the uptake of telework, running stories on companies who have good telecommuting programs in place. It's good promo for the company showcased and would spur other companies to follow suit. It also demonstrates a greater level of environmental awareness on the media's part.

Be a leader

Even if you're not in a position to make decisions about your companies' work practices, do some further research into telecommuting and report your findings to management. It's not unusual for great ideas to be overlooked because of ignorance or fear of the unknown. You never know, you might find yourself with a promotion or a raise!

Even if you can't telecommute - think about your buying habits. How much could you save on gas a year by purchasing a proportion of goods and services online instead of visiting a store?

Green telecommuting

For those who do telecommute to work, we also need to look at the equipment we are using - there's really no need for us to using energy hungry computers these days. I have a small property in the outback which has no mains electricity. Presently I use a bank of car batteries and a petrol generator (ick) to recharge them. Given the challenges of power, I really had to do my homework before purchasing a notebook. The current notebook I have only draws 70 watts max and around 4 amps - that's over 50% less than a comparable desktop/cathode screen combination. Next year, I will purchase a solar rig for my notebook, which will lessen my petrol use by 90%. 

Be sure of one thing - oil *is* running out, it is a finite resource that took millions of years to develop. It is not renewing itself at anywhere close to the rate that we are extracting it. 

Do not rely on governments to solve this problem. Each of us must play our part and telecommuting/ecommerce *is* part of the solution. The more people are teleworking, the more comfortable they will be with the online world - and the more goods and services they will buy online for themselves ;).

Here are some further resources on implementing telecommuting in the workplace that you may find valuable:

Telework: A Guide for Managers

International Telework Association & Council

InnoVisions Canada, telecommuting consultants

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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