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Effects of Remote Working on the Environment

Author Reese Mimi Tseayo

Many companies are now working remotely by default and more than a few offices plan to remain closed until 2021 while employees work remotely. This has raised the question of how remote working affects the environment, in many communities especially regarding carbon emissions. This article will take a look at what sort of effects remote working has on factors that affect the environment such as energy usage.

Emissions in a mostly digital world

In recent times, more people are paying attention to how much carbon is in the air, and more than a few people have invested in probable solutions for air purification. A lot of companies were already working on ways to become more carbon neutral and permanently eliminating CO2 from their carbon cycle by measuring and tracking energy usage in their offices using renewable energy units.

However, due to the COVID 19 pandemic, remote work is the new norm and business emissions can no longer be controlled by the organizations. Workers will take control of  these emissions into their own homes which can be a challenge for companies to control. Questions like whether or not it’ll be possible to measure energy usage, and the possibility of a decrease or increase in carbon emissions or whether they would remain the same keep popping up.

Working from home: good or bad for the environment

A recent study on the effects of remote working showed that working from home led to a decrease in energy usage in more cases than an increase in energy use. These studies are not conclusive however because they each apply different research methods, activities and assumptions and since each case was unique, the results obtained were too varied. Many of them used narrow factors when there is so much that can affect the work from the home process. As such, we cannot definitively say that working from home leads to an increase or decrease in energy consumption.

Changes in behavior when working from home

There are ripple effects of remote work that manifest in the way people behave and this can either be to the detriment or benefit of the environment. The major and most obvious positive effect of working from home is that there is no need to commute to the office which cuts down on the emissions from vehicles however it gets more complicated than that. The new behaviors employees exhibit working from home can often be difficult to measure and hard to predict and what’s more, they may negatively outweigh all the positives gotten from eliminated commutes.

Commuting

As some employees consider leaving the city for the duration of the work from home order, it could translate to more energy saved as a result of their canceled commutes to work however, they could also be upping their emissions at the same time because they now have a longer commute back into the city to run errands or for attending meetings and other entertainment purposes. Another effect is that public transportation may be unavailable so more people would need to use individual cars which would result in more carbon emissions. A study by the University of Newcastle showed that vehicles traveling long distances while transporting a sole rider tend to have a more negative effect since the same commute by a bus would have more people in transit with more or less the same amount of emissions.

Lifestyle changes

Shipping emissions may also rise as employees spend more time online shopping or ordering meals which would have to be transported to their homes. The temperature levels of workers’ homes rising due to longer hours spent at home will also contribute to the emissions and other concerns like whether or not they will purchase an out of city home, use sustainable means of transport or purchase more energy-consuming gadgets?

Energy use

There could also be an increase in the amount of energy used in homes as they work remotely. Things like lighting, cooking, and heating will be used more often. A study showed that during winter when people worked from home, they produced as much as 80% more carbon emissions than they would if they were working in an office. For example, heating a central office space is much more efficient than heating a single home.

Thinking about climate change starts now

We cannot afford to treat climate change as an afterthought. Each organization should have plans for environmental sustainability in their business design if we intend to have a positive long term existence, if we do, then the way that we design our office ecosystems, services and products should be environmentally conscious.

Commitment businesses can make as they become more digital

  • Measure and document what effects having their staff work from home has as they adapt to a new way of life
  • Learn new ways to go about measuring and reducing the current footprint they have.
  • Make what they learn about climate consciousness readily available so other businesses can benefit from their knowledge

Doing this will be no walk in the park, especially for larger businesses. These companies have branches all over the world, use different heating systems with each of their thousands of employees having full control over what decisions they make regarding energy use.

Except for the few exceptions mentioned above, we are quite positive that remote working definitely leaves a smaller carbon footprint than in-office work although we may never know for sure.  In all of this, companies should strive to create inclusive, effective, and productive work cultures that have positive effects on the environment.

With the COVID 19 pandemic still very much active and vaccines still in testing stages, it is more than likely that a good number of people will be working from home until next year whether they like it or not.

We encourage more businesses to learn about sustainable work from home practices and educate their workforce because, for all we know, things may remain this way for a long time to come.