When the pandemic accelerated remote and hybrid work trends, some environmentalists rejoiced. Air travel restrictions, social distancing and the sudden elimination of many commutes to and from workplaces drastically reduced carbon emissions, which dropped more than 5% in 2020.1
While fuel prices have since spiked well ahead of pre-Pandemic levels, this inflation isn’t driven by a return of commuter demand – people are still not buying fuel like they were in 2019, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.2 While economic activity has surpassed pre-pandemic levels and unemployment in the U.S. is at historic lows, it does seem that changes made in how and where we work has helped reduce fossil fuel reliance. More electric and hybrid vehicles can only help.
But none of this means that remote or hybrid work is necessarily green. If we think back to a pre-pandemic mindset, the environmental goals of business owners and building managers was to use technology and services to reduce operational carbon footprints. Businesses could use their bulk buying power, for example, to purchase energy from renewable sources at attractive prices. Some large companies even issue green bonds to fund such programs.3 Such initiatives rely on the financial power that mid and large sized companies have. They can issue debt and they can persuade suppliers to offer them good prices.
Other areas where offices and facilities have advantages include the installation and use of smart climate control systems, efficient heating and cooling equipment and LED lighting. Companies with centralized workforces can also better manage recycling programs for both waste and equipment.
How Green Is Remote Work?
If the largest part of a worker’s individual carbon footprint is the commute, then remote work can be a net positive for the environment. But for most people and industries, the calculation is a bit more complex.
Working from home might necessitate larger living spaces, for example. These not only take more materials and land to build or renovate but will use more resources for power, heating and cooling. Remote work also relies on fast information networks and data processing which can increase demand for large server farms that rely on continuous electricity as well as water for cooling systems.
It’s also unlikely that an individual’s home will be equipped with the latest climate systems or most efficient lighting sources. If you ask an industry professional, they will tell you that the useful life of a home boiler used for heat and hot water is about 15 years.4
But at an installation price that can top $8,000 most homeowners are happy to let their boilers work for far longer. With annual maintenance, this equipment is likely to perform well past its “sell by” date. That a newer, more efficient boiler might pay for itself in reduced bills over a few years isn’t necessarily a great pitch for homeowners with immediate cash needs – and that assumes the work-from-home employee is an owner rather than a tenant. For renters, environmental concerns will be addressed by landlords trying to maximize their cash flow.
Employers should expect that homes equipped with outdated infrastructure will remain so and the apartment cooled in the summer by a window mounted air conditioner will never match the energy efficiency of a building equipped with smart thermostats.
Businesses with office space, meanwhile, often have better means to upgrade the facilities, as well as tax incentives to win and regulatory obligations to meet. A business is just as more likely and able to maximize its efficiency and reduce its carbon footprint than an individual worker.
More hours worked from home also means more resource consumption at home and that changes stress on power grids, demands for raw materials and emissions. Traditionally, electric usage peaks in the mornings as people get ready for work and school and then again in the early evenings as workers return home. A work from home professional might have totally different high-demand hours. Suddenly, air conditioners, dishwashers and laundry machines are all humming in the background while the worker attends an online meeting.
Finally all the environmental good achieved by reducing auto commutes can be erased by having to gather a disparate workforce for a few in-person meetings per year. While cars are responsible for 10% of carbon emissions and planes just 2%5 , one flight dwarfs the carbon emissions of a single person car trip.6
The environmental impact of remote and hybrid work is complex. It clearly creates some advantages but is not resource free. Employers concerned about their overall carbon footprint can’t, unfortunately, tally hybrid work schedules as a win and declare the matter solved.
Some companies might want to use their bulk buying power to help at-home employees replace traditional lighting with low power alternatives. Education about home maintenance and environmental impact could also help work-at-home employees make smarter decisions. Some employers may even create incentives for employees who undertake energy efficient home upgrades.
For conferences, group meetings and the like, train travel is generally more environmentally sound than either flying or driving, and makes good sense for shorter journeys. Companies might also choose to reduce the number of in person gatherings that draw employees from far away. A solution, rather than canceling events, would be to digitally link several mini-hubs around the country so that employees don’t have to make too long a trip to attend.
Before the pandemic, employers put great thought and effort into carbon footprint reduction. The hybrid work era, which was coming anyway, presents new challenges to be dealt with. It may be necessary and worthwhile to hire a third party of environmental experts who can evaluate and audit a remote or hybrid workplace to highlight environmental benefits and areas in need of improvement. Measurement, which is vital to planning, will be more difficult than in an office setting, but valuable information could be obtained through well-crafted employee surveys. It’s a new twist on an old problem, but not less vital than it was in 2019.
BeyondHQ is the first real-time, collaborative SaaS platform designed to help companies run unlimited talent and real estate analyses while saving time and money. The company’s distributed workforce and workplace planning tools bring transparency, collaboration, and speed to decision-makers tasked with the challenge of building and scaling geographically distributed teams and offices.
As companies think more about hybrid and other flexible work models and a geographically dispersed workforce, they need a consistent, dependable solution that helps them predict, rank, and optimize successful outcomes regardless of which direction the company chooses – in-office, remote, or flexible work models. BeyondHQ enables HR, Real Estate, and Finance teams to evaluate where, why, and how to identify the right workforce plans in the right markets and where to prioritize their resources. Using a single interface to access trusted market data, the proprietary technology informs ‘what-if’ style scenario planning with customized recommendations based on the organization’s specific criteria, needs, and culture.