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Is working from home better for the environment?

Is remote work really more sustainable?

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With the lack of commute and office energy consumption, is working from home better for the environment? Recently there has been growing evidence on both sides of this debate. On the one hand, working from home means generally less cars on the roads and fewer commuters on a city’s transport. On the other, remote workers are often heating homes for one and using excess energy.

We spoke to two people on opposite sides of the debate to learn more about their thoughts on the sustainability of remote working.

Yes – remote work is more sustainable

The lack of commute makes this question a no-brainer. Fewer cars and commuters mean cutting emissions and pollution, resulting in cleaner air for cities around the world. Current remote workers in the USA are estimated to be cutting emissions by 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses a year. To put this into context, offsetting this amount of carbon would be equivalent to planting 91 million trees.

There are also small environmental considerations that come with office work, such as excess waste. Working from home can reduce paper use as all necessary documents are distributed online. Some studies even suggest working online eliminates 247 trillion sheets of waste paper every year. Remote working also reduces the use of single-use plastic such as cups, packaging, and plastic utensils, which wreak havoc on the local environment. It’s easy to overlook how much waste we produce when we are away from our kitchen cupboards.

Heating and lighting office spaces also take much more energy than supplying individuals at home. Working from home can reduce general energy consumption as non-efficient, large office locations will be empty and won’t be using energy.

Working from home is also better for people’s health. The lack of commute means more sleep, staying out of city centres means cleaner air to breathe, and having access to a stocked kitchen means more time and resources to cook healthy food. The healthier we are, the easier it is to make environmentally sound decisions, both at work and at home. 

No – the true picture is far more complex

The belief that “remote working = more sustainable” oversimplifies the argument. The calculations around this question are complex. Starting with the topic of energy usage, seasonality is a big factor. A study from London consulting firm WSP UK found that, in the UK, remote work is only more environmentally friendly in the summer due to the energy impacts of heating multiple homes, rather than consolidating into one office location.

Consumption rates vary vastly around the world – commutes in countries with heavy use of electric vehicles or public transport have a far smaller carbon footprint than others. Add to that whether the worker’s home country gets its energy from “clean” sources, and the argument becomes even more clouded. Analysis from the International Energy Agency suggested that workers who use public transport or drive less than an eight-mile round trip could actually increase their total emissions by working from home.

Even features such as video calling and cloud-based storage have an impact on the environment. The energy needed to store and power our daily working activities is something we often forget about when we take a meeting online or go paperless. A face-to-face conversation across the room or physical note-taking can have less impact than the digital alternatives.

Hybrid work is by far the most popular post-pandemic working style – that is, a combination of in-office and remote working. However, without significant changes to workplaces, this has almost no sustainability benefit – it has even been described as a “worst-case scenario”, in that both homes and offices are now producing workplace emissions.

Finally, remote work shifts the burden of emission reduction on workers rather than employers. Companies are by far the bigger drivers of climate impacts – it is thought that 100 companies worldwide are responsible for 71% of global emissions. With this in mind, how will they be held accountable when the onus for emission reduction is moved to our personal homes? How does a company audit and reduce its carbon footprint when its workspaces are now private dwellings over which they have no control?

Looking Ahead

Is working from home a way to reduce our carbon footprint, or are we simply shifting where our emissions are coming from? Going forward, employers and employees might end up with more to consider than they first thought when trying to create a sustainable working environment.

Let us know what you think! Join the conversation over on Twitter and LinkedIn.