Is remote work actually better for the environment?

The Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to the largest remote work “experiment” in history, accelerating a long-term trend towards flexible, remote work, and digitalization. The percentage of people working from home in the U.S. alone rose from 5% to 37% during the height of the pandemic. Now, companies are experimenting with different models of remote work as we come out of the crisis. Recent surveys show that 91% of remote employees would like to continue their hybrid or remote working, and 76% say their employer allows them to work remotely going forward.

With the daily commute all but canceled during successive Covid-19 lockdowns, many have assumed that working from home will lead to environmental sustainability gains. Indeed, such dramatic changes in mobility, production, and consumption patterns, temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17% in April 2020 compared to peak 2019 levels. But what seemed like a promising trend soon faded away: emissions are now almost back at pre-pandemic levels, even as employees aren’t.

The research conducted by Ganga Shreedhar, Kate Laffan, and Laura M. Giurge also shows that working from home is not a clear win for the environment. The net sustainability impact depends on several employee behaviors, from travel to energy use, to digital devices and waste management. It also depends on many situational factors like home building and local infrastructure.

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

What WFH Employee Behaviors Should Companies Consider?

To understand the sustainability implications of WFH, companies need to consider a range of environmentally relevant employee behaviors like energy, travel, technology, and waste. Behavioral change across 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 indicating a neutral or even a negative impact on energy use. Ultimately, such impacts can vary substantially by employee’s individual characteristics (e.g., awareness, attitudes, family size, wealth), home infrastructure (e.g., building energy ratings, supplier), and even situational factors (e.g., geographic location and season). When companies craft remote work policies, for instance by subsidizing home energy bills, they also need to account for sustainability impacts from residential energy emissions.

Transportation footprint

Reduced commuting when WFH will undoubtedly yield environmental benefits, but there is emerging evidence of rebound effects, including increased non-work travel and more short trips. For example, in a Californian sample of employees who shifted to WFH during the Covid-19 pandemic, the decline in vehicle miles traveled was accompanied by a 26% increase in the average number of trips taken. Apart from changes to the work commute, potential changes in emissions arising from business-related travel in hybrid settings (e.g., events and conferences) will also matter.

Technology footprint

From an individual footprint perspective, our digital behaviors add up. One study suggests that a “typical business” user – albeit in the pre-Covid-19 period – generates 135kg (298lbs) of CO2e (i.e. carbon dioxide equivalent) from sending emails each year. This is equivalent to driving 200 miles in a family car, slightly less than the distance from Brussels to London. But the typical business person’s technology needs have now changed; fewer in-person 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 aligns with past research showing that employees adopt more sustainable waste practices at home than at the office. Thus, WFH may have a net positive environmental impact for waste management behaviors, keeping in mind that local services like provision of waste bins for sorting and recycling are important enabling factors. However, there is also a risk of increased electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) — an estimated 50 million tons a year globally, only 20% of which is formally recycled.

How can companies make WFH more environmentally sustainable?

Remote work presents fresh challenges for how best to observe and influence behaviors that matter for sustainability. Employees’ homes represent their private sphere, and organizations need to tread carefully so as not to overreach. At the same time, many employees will likely welcome a helping hand from their employer to ensure that their WFH set-up is both comfortable and sustainable. Developing sustainability policies that yield co-benefits (e.g., environmental and financial benefits), ensures that organizations can concurrently promote their employees’ well-being and work outcomes towards their sustainability goals.

Organizational leaders who care about reducing their work forces’ environmental impacts — and we think all leaders should — can start by designing WFH plans and policies with the following three considerations in mind.

Embed a sustainability culture.

To create an environmentally sustainable and climate-friendly culture, organizations need to make sure that sustainability considerations are routinely embedded in every corporate decision across all departments — not just in CSR. This means first considering what the existing social norms and perceptions are for addressing remote employee (and company) travel, technology, waste, and energy emissions. Then design ways to reduce these emissions by addressing how people interact with each of these practices..

For example: What initiatives, tools, and tips are already available that help (or deter) employees’ green behavior at home? Is there a meeting policy that promotes remote — rather than in-person — as the default? How are leaders and managers addressing existing sustainability practices and commitments with their teams, including their remote employees?

Leaders can further help shape a sustainability culture by adhering to existing environmental policies themselves. Consider Ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, who is often credited for bringing sustainability to the masses through business practices that he adhered to as well, such as not flying business class. Just as leaders need to walk the talk, they also need to let employees choose how they implement the policies offered. Doing so will allow employees to feel supported rather than monitored, and boost rather than erode employees’ trust and goodwill.

Provide supportive policies.

Looking at existing policies is an important first step, but it is typically not enough. To embed an environmentally sustainable culture, organizational leaders should provide remote employees with the right support in each of the outlined domains. This could include additional policies like encouraging and supporting employees to change to renewable sources of energy at home by providing access to auto switching energy services. Employers could also provide incentives for active travel for work meetings like bike schemes; they can further offer recycling and safe disposal of duplicate or old electronic devices and e-waste through in-house drop-off centers or partnerships with upcycling companies. This is not an exhaustive list, and employers should seek input from their employees about additional desired policies and structures.

Think global, act local.

Some policies (e.g., automatically switching to the cheapest green energy tariffs and tips for reducing emissions around the home) may be useful to all employees. However, environmental footprints will vary substantially across individuals, teams, companies, and industries. For example, one company’s workforce might rely heavily on technology, so helping reduce emissions from e-waste and energy is especially important. Another company’s workforce might commute long distances or undertake frequent work travel; for this company, the priorities should be to lower travel emissions by reducing options like non-essential trips, using low-carbon transport, flying economy for essential trips, and carbon offsetting.

Depending on the location of your staff, it may be more appropriate to focus on reducing emissions from cooling rather than heating, or both.. The point being that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Instead, when designing and promoting environmentally sustainable WFH policies, companies need to consider the unique circumstances of their employees as well as the characteristics of their business operations to identify the most relevant behaviors.

As remote work models become increasingly popular, fewer of employees’ sustainability impacts are likely to take place under employers’ physical roofs, however, they will still occur on their watch. Alongside 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 through providing support, policies, and leadership for employees. In doing so, organizations can ensure that WFH stacks up on a comprehensive set of sustainability measures and that they achieve their sustainability goals.

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