The COVID-19 pandemic was notable for many reasons. Among them, the most significant shift into remote work that the global workforce has seen. Not only that, but global emissions dropped amidst the COVID lockdowns.
Part of these reductions were likely from this work-from-home (WFH) shift, right? Consequence’s research of over 3,000 global companies finds employee commutes along with emissions from buildings and vehicles owned & controlled by the company account for well over 30% of total emissions (excluding industrial & manufacturing sectors).
And more generally, nearly a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation. Surely ripe for reductions in a WFH environment. However, emissions have risen to their pre-pandemic levels, even with almost 6 out of 10 American workers regularly working from home.
This suggests that the environmental impacts of remote work policies are not necessarily so straightforward.
Here we break down what you need to know.
Is remote work good for the environment?
Is remote work good for the environment? Yes, undoubtedly so. Remembering a company's carbon footprint includes emissions from operating buildings and vehicles owned or controlled by a company and employees commuting to those locations.
Work From Home policies will naturally reduce these emissions by eliminating employee commutes and reducing the energy load of buildings.
But the blunt context is most global emissions associated with transportation are caused by industry, not individuals.
Other environmental impacts of remote work
Reduction in energy usage by commercial buildings
Commercial buildings are becoming increasingly energy-efficient or powered by renewable energy as time goes on. In fact, a new EU plan proposes to make solar panels mandatory on all new buildings in the EU.
As it currently stands, commercial buildings still require significantly more energy than residential ones. Unless entirely powered by renewable energy sources, this energy is generated by GHG emitting fossil fuels.
Office buildings alone (where remote work policies could be applied the most widely) account for 14% of the total energy consumption by commercial buildings. Needless to say, widespread remote work policies would make these (and other) commercial buildings and the energy they require unnecessary.
The obsolescence of the office building is no longer a theoretical concept. Many companies, such as Hubstaff, Doist, Swiftly, Ghost, and Toptal, have made it a reality with a 100% remote staff.
Reduction in air pollution
With reduced GHG emissions, fewer cars on the road will inevitably lead to reductions in air pollution. This is beneficial to the environment and all of us.
Air pollution is a massive problem in almost every part of the world. A 2016 study by the Centre for Health and the Environment at the University of California, Davis, found that 9 out of 10 people in urban areas suffered the effects of air pollution. These effects include the increased risk of pulmonary disease, asthma, lung disease, and respiratory infections.
Remote work policies, by reducing the vehicles on the road every day, will help reduce this air pollution.
Many factors influence how environmentally-friendly remote work policies can be.
It's true that remote work can help lower the carbon footprints of companies and organisations, however, several factors determine how effective it will be at accomplishing this reduction.
Possible employee behaviour could bolster or undermine the potential effectiveness of remote work policies from a sustainability point of view. Four types of behaviour, in particular, are most pertinent here. These are:
Remote energy usage
The most impactful employee behaviour is the energy they use at home while working. If, for example, employees working from home end up using more energy at home than they would at the office, the environmental impact of WFH policies would be undermined.
Nevertheless, a systemic review of the energy and climate impacts of remote work by researchers at the University of Sussex found that most studies demonstrated that remote work reduced energy usage. The primary reason is that it reduces commuter travel and replaces office-related energy consumption.
Organisations need to keep their remote employee's energy footprints in mind while evaluating the impacts of their WFH policies. Individual factors such as attitude, family size, wealth, home energy ratings, geographic location, and the season will influence how much energy an employee will use during their workday.
Consequence’s research, which reviews over 5,000 companies annually, has shown many companies are starting to incorporate these WFH emissions into their corporate carbon footprints in order to account for and monitor their impact and develop reduction strategies.
Remote worker travel
Most studies find that remote working does reduce emissions derived from transportation, but it is still possible for these reductions to be undermined by the increase in non-work-related travel made possible by these very policies.
It's becoming clear that remote working allows employees to increase the amount of leisure travelling than if they were working in an office. The rise of "bleisure" can undermine the environmental impact of a firm's remote working policies.
Where companies include WFH emissions in their carbon footprint report, should they now be accounting for these travel-related emissions they are enabling?
Remote technology footprint
The bulk of emissions associated with office working comes from the commute and the building's energy usage. However, there is another important consideration: the technology itself.
A study from Lancaster University found that the GHG emissions from computing and information technology (ICT) may be higher than previously thought. These researchers suggest that ICTs could be responsible for around 2.1-3.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. At Consequence, we are certain this proportion will increase as our lifestyles and work become further digitised.
These emissions are generated in many ways, From the energy required to manufacture technology, the carbon cost of components, the energy consumed when using the equipment, and how they are ultimately disposed of.
As employees shift to remote work, their technology footprints will also change, affecting a firm's WFH environmental impact.
Employee waste footprint
Finally, work-from-home policies will influence the waste-related behaviours of their employees. For example, during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns in 2019, it was found that UK residents increased the amount that they recycled.
Not only that, but psychological research from Cardiff University found that, in general, people are more likely to engage in environmentally friendly waste practices at home than at work.
As such, remote work would likely lower the waste footprints of your employees. Nevertheless, as we mentioned previously regarding the technology footprint, remote work could increase employees' electronic waste.
How your company can make remote work as environmentally friendly as possible
Companies can take specific actions to ensure that their employees' WFH situations positively contribute to the company's sustainability goals.
Incorporate a sustainability culture within the firm
Ultimately, the best way to make your remote working policies as environmentally friendly as possible is to incorporate sustainability within your organisation's culture as much as possible. Doing so will mean including sustainability considerations in every decision your company makes.
To ensure that these four primary factors do not undermine the environmental impact of your WFH policies, your organisation must address the norms and perceptions of travel, technology, waste, and energy emissions your employees hold. From there, it becomes possible to develop methods to effectively and substantially reduce the GHG emissions of your firm.
Create policies to support remote work
With that said, it's also vital that those companies looking to reduce their carbon footprints through remote work policies create other policies to support it and bolster its environmental impacts.
These policies could include helping remote workers transition to renewable energy sources for their homes. It could also involve assisting remote workers in recycling their electronic waste.
Avoid hybrid working models
In the post-COVID working world, many companies are implementing hybrid models for remote work. This means that employees are splitting their time at home while still coming into the office on some days.
However, suppose your organisation is looking to implement work-from-home policies to help reduce its carbon footprint. In that case, hybrid working models should be avoided. Instead, to maximise the environmental impact of your remote work policies, your organisation should make the jump and make remote workers fully remote.
A study conducted by Carbon Trust and Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications in 2021 found that hybrid working models would actually increase the energy usage of an organisation. This is simply because hybrid models still require keeping offices open, which requires a significant amount of energy, as we mentioned. In addition to that, remote workers would be using energy at home, ultimately undermining the environmental impact of WFH policies.
Remember that remote work is only one piece of the puzzle.
Suppose a company is serious about reducing its carbon footprint or going net-zero. In that case, it must keep in mind that implementing remote work policies should only be one piece of the sustainability portfolio.
There are many ways a company can reduce its emissions beyond remote work, such as transitioning to renewable sources of energy, reducing waste, or engaging employees in sustainability.
Even so, a certain amount of GHG emissions are still unavoidable as of this time and will be until renewable energy infrastructure is more widespread.
Nevertheless, in addition to your organisation or company implementing the strategies mentioned above to reduce your emissions, you also need to leverage carbon offsets to account for the unavoidable emissions.
Learn more about how carbon offsetting works and how it can fit into your company's sustainability goals.