Is remote work really better for the environment?


The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to the greatest remote work “experiment” in history, accelerating a long term trend towards flexible, remote working and digitization. The percentage of people work from home in the United States alone, it rose from 5% to 37% at the height of the pandemic. Today, companies are experimenting different remote work models coming out of crises. Recent surveys show that 91% of remote employees would like to continue their hybrid or remote work, and 76% say their employer will allow them to work remotely in the future.

With daily commutes all but canceled during successive Covid-19 shutdowns, many assumed that working from home would lead to environmental sustainability gains. Indeed, such dramatic changes in mobility, production and consumption patterns, temporarily reduction of global CO2 emissions by 17% in April 2020 compared to peak levels in 2019. But what seemed like a promising trend quickly faded: emissions are now almost back to pre-pandemic levelseven if the employees are not.

In effect, our research also shows that telework is not an obvious victory for the environment. The net sustainability impact depends on several employee behaviors, from travel to energy consumption, digital devices and waste management. It also depends on several situational factors like house construction and local infrastructure.

For companies rushing to publish ESG indicators, like their carbon footprint, for example, this shift to remote work presents new challenges. How should remote work be considered against a company’s sustainability goals?

What WFH employee behaviors should companies consider?

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

Energy footprint

The impact of telework on energy consumption is mixed, with some studies finding a positive effect, while others point to a neutral or even negative impact on energy consumption. Ultimately, these impacts can vary widely depending on individual employee characteristics (e.g., awareness, attitudes, family size, wealth), home infrastructure (e.g., energy ratings of the building, supplier) and even situational factors (e.g. geographic location and season). When companies develop remote working policies, for example by subsidize home energy billsthey must also consider the sustainability impacts of residential energy emissions.

Transport footprint

Reduced travel when FMH will undoubtedly bring environmental benefits, but there is emerging evidence of rebound effects, including increased non-work travel and shorter commutes. For example, in a Californian sample of employees who switched to working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, the decline in vehicle miles traveled was accompanied by a 26% increase in the average number of journeys made. In addition to changes in commuting, potential changes in emissions resulting from business travel in hybrid contexts (e.g. events and conferences) will also matter.

Technological footprint

From the perspective of the individual footprint, our digital behaviors add up. A study suggests that a “typical professional” user – albeit in the pre-Covid-19 era – creates 135 kg (298 lbs) of CO2e (i.e. carbon dioxide equivalent) by sending emails every year, which is equivalent to driving 200 miles in a family car, just under the distance Brussels-London. But the typical technological needs of the businessman have now changed; less in-person office interactions can mean more time spent communicating online. Equally problematic is that the main short-term telework policy adopted by several companies has been to provide employees with laptops, even if it means duplicating the devices.

Waste footprint

In the UK, recycling increase during the first confinement; it aligns with previous research showing that employees adopt more sustainable waste management practices at home than in the office. Thus, the FMH can have a net positive environmental impact on waste management behaviors, bearing in mind that local services such as the provision of bins for sorting and recycling are important enabling factors. However, there is also a risk of increased electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) – an estimate 50 million tons per year worldwide, of which only 20% is formally recycled.

How can companies make remote working more environmentally sustainable?

Remote work presents new challenges for how best to observe and influence the behaviors that matter for sustainability. Employees’ homes represent their private sphere, and organizations need to be careful not to go overboard. At the same time, many employees will likely appreciate a helping hand from their employer to ensure their remote work organization is both comfortable and sustainable. Developing sustainability policies that generate co-benefits (eg, environmental and financial benefits) ensures that organizations can simultaneously promote employee well-being and workplace outcomes toward their sustainability goals.

Organizational leaders who care about reducing the environmental impacts of their workforce—and we believe all leaders should—can start by designing FMH plans and policies with the following three considerations in mind.

Integrate a culture of sustainability.

To create an environmentally sustainable and climate-friendly culture, organizations must ensure that sustainability considerations are systematically integrated into every business decision across all departments, not just CSR. This means first looking at what social norms and perceptions exist for addressing remote (and internal) employee travel, technology, waste, and energy emissions, and then designing ways to reduce those emissions. addressing how people interact with each of these elements. practices.

For example: What initiatives, tools, and guidance are already available that help (or discourage) employee green behaviors at home? Is there a meeting policy that promotes remote – rather than in-person – by default? How do leaders and managers address existing sustainability practices and commitments with their teams, including their remote employees?

Leaders can further help shape a culture of sustainability by themselves adhering to existing environmental policies. Consider Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, who is often credited with bringing durability to the masses through business practices he also adhered to, such as not flying business class. Just as leaders should lead by example, they should also let employees choose how they implement proposed policies. This will allow employees to feel supported rather than watched, and to stimulate rather than erode employees trust and kindness.

Provide supportive policies.

Reviewing existing policies is an important first step, but it is often not enough. To embed an environmentally sustainable culture, organizational leaders must provide remote employees with appropriate support in each of the areas described. This could include additional policies such as encouraging and supporting employees to switch to renewable energy sources at home by providing access to automatically switched energy services. Employers could also offer active travel incentives for work meetings, such as bicycle programs; they may additionally offer recycling and safe disposal of duplicate or old electronics and e-waste through in-house drop-off centers or partnerships with recycling companies. This is not an exhaustive list and employers should seek input from their employees on desired additional policies and structures.

Think global, act local.

Some policies (for example, automatically switching to the cheapest green energy rates and tips for reducing emissions around the home) can be helpful to all employees. However, environmental footprints vary widely across individuals, teams, companies, and industries. For example, a company’s workforce may rely heavily on technology, so it’s especially important to help reduce emissions from e-waste and energy. Another company’s workforce may travel long distances or make frequent business trips; for this company, the priorities should be to reduce emissions from travel by reducing options such as non-essential travel, using low-carbon transport, traveling in economy class for essential travel and offsetting carbon emissions. carbon.

Depending on where your workforce is located, it may be more appropriate to focus on reducing emissions from cooling rather than heating, or both. The fact is that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Instead, when designing and promoting eco-friendly telecommuting policies, companies should consider the unique circumstances of their employees as well as the characteristics of their business operations to identify the most relevant behaviors. .

As remote working models become more popular, fewer employee sustainability impacts are likely to occur under employers’ physical roofs, but they will still occur under their watch. In addition to paying attention to the specific circumstances and contexts of employees to better understand the dimensions of environmental impacts, it is crucial to embed a culture of sustainability by providing support, policies and leadership to employees. By doing so, organizations can ensure that the WFH is building on a comprehensive set of sustainability metrics and meeting their sustainability goals.

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


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