Is remote working actually better for the environment?


The Covid-19 pandemic spawned the largest remote working ‘experiment’ in history, accelerating a long-term trend towards flexible remote working and digitalization. In the US alone, the percentage of people working from home rose from 5% to 37% during the height of the pandemic. Now companies are experimenting with different models of remote working as we emerge from the crisis. Recent surveys show that 91% of remote workers would like to continue their hybrid or telecommuting, and 76% say their employer will allow them to work remotely in the future.

With daily commutes virtually canceled during successive Covid-19 lockdowns, many have assumed that WFH will lead to gains in environmental sustainability. Indeed, such dramatic changes in mobility, production and consumption patterns have temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17% in April 2020 compared to peak levels in 2019. But what seemed a promising trend soon faded: emissions are now close to zero. back to pre-pandemic levels, even if not for workers.

Indeed, our research also shows that WFH is not a clear environmental benefit. The net impact on sustainability depends on various employee behaviors, from travel to energy consumption, to digital devices and waste management. It also depends on several situational factors, such as housing construction and local infrastructure.

For companies rushing to publish ESG indicators, such as their environmental footprint, for example, this shift to remote working poses new challenges. How should remote working be accounted for against a company’s sustainability goals?

What behavior of WFH employees should companies take into account?

To understand the sustainability implications of WFH, companies need to consider a range of environmentally relevant employee behaviors. We highlight four behavioral domains that are particularly important: energy, travel, technology and waste. Behavioral change in these domains can have major environmental impacts when aggregated across individuals, teams, companies and industries.

Energy footprint

The impact of WFH on energy use is mixed, with some studies finding a positive effect, while others point to a neutral or even negative effect on energy use. Ultimately, such effects can vary significantly depending on the individual characteristics of the worker (e.g., awareness, attitude, family size, wealth), the infrastructure of the home (e.g., building energy labels, supplier), and even situational factors (e.g., geographic location). and season). When developing policies for remote working, for example by subsidizing energy bills at home, companies must also take into account the sustainability effects of residential energy emissions.

Transport footprint

Less commuting when WFH will undoubtedly bring environmental benefits, but there is growing evidence of rebound effects, including more travel outside of work and more short trips. For example, in a California sample of workers who switched to WFH during the Covid-19 pandemic, the decrease in vehicle miles traveled was accompanied by a 26% increase in average journeys made. Apart from changes in commuting, possible changes in emissions from business travel in hybrid environments (eg events and conferences) are also of interest.

Technology footprint

From the perspective of an individual footprint, our digital behaviors add up. One study suggests that a “typical business” user – albeit in the pre-Covid-19 period – creates 135 kg (298 lbs) of CO2e (i.e., carbon dioxide equivalent) per year by sending emails, which is the equivalent of Driving 200 miles in a family car, just under the distance from Brussels to London. But the technology needs of the typical businessman have now changed; fewer face-to-face office interactions can mean more time spent communicating online. Equally problematic is that the primary short-term WFH policy adopted by several companies has been to provide employees with laptops, even at the risk of duplicating devices.

Waste footprint

In the UK, recycling increased during the first lockdown; this is in line with previous research showing that employees use more sustainable waste at home than at the office. Thus, WFH can have a net positive environmental impact on waste management behavior, bearing in mind that local services, such as providing bins for sorting and recycling, are important facilitators. However, there is also a risk of an increase in electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) – an estimated 50 million tons per year worldwide, of which only 20% is formally recycled.

How can companies make WFH more environmentally friendly?

Remote working presents new challenges for observing and influencing behavior that is important for sustainability. Employees’ homes represent their private spheres and organizations should be careful not to overreach. At the same time, many employees are likely to welcome a helping hand from their employer to ensure their WFH setup is both comfortable and durable. Developing sustainability policies that deliver additional benefits (e.g. environmental and financial benefits) enables organizations to simultaneously promote employee well-being and work results toward their sustainability goals.

Organizational leaders who want to reduce the environmental impact of their workforce—and we believe all leaders should—can begin designing WFH plans and policies with these three considerations in mind.

Anchor a sustainability culture.

To create an eco-friendly and climate-friendly culture, organizations must ensure that sustainability considerations are routinely embedded in every business decision across all departments – not just CSR. This means first looking at existing social norms and perceptions for tackling emissions from remote (and internal) workers’ travel, technology, waste and energy, and then devising ways to reduce these emissions by looking at how people deal with each of these practices.

For example: What initiatives, tools and tips are there already that help (or discourage) the green behavior of employees at home? Is there a meeting policy that promotes distance – instead of in person – as the default? How do leaders and managers deal with existing sustainability practices and commitments with their teams, including their remote collaborators?

Leaders can further help shape a culture of sustainability by adhering to existing environmental policies. Think Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, who is often credited with bringing sustainability to the masses through business practices he also adhered to, such as not flying business class. Just as leaders must speak, they must also let employees choose how they implement the policies being offered. This will make employees feel supported rather than controlled, and will enhance rather than erode employee trust and goodwill.

Provide supportive policies.

Looking at existing policy is an important first step, but often not enough. To embed an environmentally sustainable culture, organizational leaders must provide appropriate support to remote workers in each of the areas outlined. This may include additional policies such as encouraging and supporting employees to switch to renewable energy sources at home by providing access to auto-switching energy services. Employers could also provide incentives for active travel for work meetings, such as bicycle schemes; they can further offer recycling and safe disposal of duplicate or old electronic devices and e-waste through internal recycling centers or partnerships with upcycling companies. This is not an exhaustive list and employers should ask their employees for input on additional desired policies and structures.

Think globally, act locally.

Some policies (for example, automatically switching to the cheapest green energy rates and tips to reduce emissions around the home) can be beneficial for all employees. However, the environmental footprint will differ significantly between individuals, teams, companies and sectors. For example, one company’s workforce may be highly dependent on technology, so helping to reduce e-waste and energy emissions is especially important. Another company’s workforce may travel long distances or make frequent work trips; For this company, the priorities should be to reduce travel emissions by reducing options such as non-essential travel, using low-carbon transportation, flying economy for essential travel, and carbon offsetting.

Depending on where your staff is located, it may be better to focus on emissions reduction from cooling versus heating, or both. The thing is, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Instead, when designing and promoting environmentally sustainable WFH policies, companies should consider the unique circumstances of their employees and the characteristics of their business operations to identify the most relevant behaviors.

As remote working models become more popular, employee sustainability impacts are less likely to take place under employers’ physical roofs, but will still take place under their care. In addition to addressing the specific circumstances and context of employees to better understand the dimensions of environmental impacts, it is critical to embed a culture of sustainability through employee support, policies and leadership. In this way, organizations can ensure that WFH applies a comprehensive package of sustainability measures and that they achieve their sustainability goals.

The authors thank James Elfer and Zoe Featherstone Smith of MoreThanNow for starting and facilitating this conversation.

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