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Remote Work 18 min

The powerful environmental benefits of remote work

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Peter Maher

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The positive impact of remote work on the environment is significant and lasting. 

In early-2020, when the world was first swept by COVID-19 and forced into widespread lockdowns, we’ve all seen localized versions of the environmental benefits of this change. Rare species emerged from forests and began to reappear in urban waters. Sudden drops in air pollution levels in urban metropolises from L.A. to New Delhi were triggered in no small part by the reduction in people commuting to and working from their offices.

This poses an important question.

What long-term environmental benefits could we expect if companies across the globe were to continue transitioning to hybrid and remote work business models?

The prospects make for optimistic reading. This guide will help you develop a plan to reduce your company's environmental footprint by transitioning to a remote-first operating model. We'll outline the tangible benefits you can expect to support your case for going remote.

The impact of remote work on the environment

There is a heated debate on the environmental benefits of remote work. Even though a lot of research has been conducted on this matter, a lack of definitive consensus has led to one of the inhibitors of teleworking’s growth. Neither businesses, nor governments engaged in extensive promotion of remote work as data on the energy savings and environmental benefits previously seemed under-explored and inconclusive. 

Contributing factors mounted up to make the possibility of breaking resistance to changing the status quo an unlikely prospect. Before the pandemic, the following established norms far outweighed any environmental benefits to be gained from some component of remote work:

  • Traditional reliance on pre-existing work culture
  • Resistance of leadership teams to trust workers without physical oversight
  • Tendency to micromanage team members
  • Entrenched belief that in-person meetings and relationship building is essential
  • Long-term commercial leases providing financial dis-incentives

If we hone in on commuting, for instance, which is the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the US (90% comes from personal vehicles), it’s easy to see the potential positive impact that remote work could have on the environment. 

Around 90% of workers drive to work daily

This constitutes 30% of the annual mileage. 

Eliminating this factor will lead to cleaner air. 

In fact, in 2020, as most businesses started to operate remotely, carbon dioxide emissions from transportation were reduced by 15%. 

However, to answer the question whether remote work benefits the environment, we need to factor in the other supporting elements that extend well beyond the obvious outcomes of a reduction in commuter emissions. We also have to account for employees’ behavior at home if they were to spend more time at home.

The amount of energy consumed and the sources of this energy will change. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, during lockdown, the energy consumption of an average household grew by over 20% on weekdays

The extent to which remote working will positively impact the environment will highly depend on the employee's behavior. The more eco-friendly they are, the bigger the environmental impact.

Additional benefits of an environmentally-friendly remote work model

Moving to a remote work model can also result in several positive side effects, not just a reduction in fossil fuel consumption derived from less commuter traffic. Let’s take a look past the obvious immediate outcomes and dive into the secondary and long-term potential benefits.

A 2021 study of over 2,300 remote employees indicates that 97% of remote employees would like to continue working off-site (at least partially) for the remainder of their careers. 

This explicit message from employees is the central driver of the Great Resignation.

With employees spending less time on company premises or ditching office-based work altogether, many businesses are now finding significant cost savings on their real-estate expenses.

Source: Buffer

Some companies in the US have decided to move their headquarters to less expensive states. Others, including Yelp Inc. and Salesforce, are currently assessing how much space they’ll need in the foreseeable future and, in some instances, subletting their offices to other enterprises.

Wall Street Journal reports that the reduction in office expenses alone will save medical supplies’ company McKesson anywhere between $60 to $80 million each year.

If this macro trend continues over time, a secondary evolution in urban planning could see a transition to more green space. As businesses work to reduce their fixed assets and downsize their office footprint, we could see a widespread movement to convert more under-utilized commercial spaces into parks, recreation facilities, and pedestrian areas. 

Reduced commute time reduces emissions and improves work-life balance

For many workers, more remote work eradicates time spent in cars, trains, buses, and airplanes. Instead of spending a chunk of time each day trekking to the office, remote workers often have the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones, and taking more care of their physical and mental health.

The reduction in travel time also leads to better ability for people to shop local. Peak hour traffic is reduced, leaving more time to either walk, drive, or take public transport to shop. Many remote workers have more time to dedicate to cooking at home which means using less processed food and more fresh food. 

This is another knock-on benefit of the environmental impact of allowing employees time to work from home. 

Of course, there are both strong voices in favor of and against remote work. Many advocate that remote work can have the opposite effect on physical and mental wellbeing.

For instance, while CNBC reports that home-based work can lead to faster employee burnout, a study published by the Institute of Labour Economics points that work-life balance is, in fact, primarily conditioned by their employees’ private lives and habits. In the paper, employment researchers Lutz Bellmann and Olaf Hübler reveal that individuals who work from home are happier than those who’d like to work remotely, but work on company premises. They have also found that “the termination of remote work causes a clear imbalance”, and can lead to a drop in job satisfaction.

It’s hardly surprising, given that 97% of remote workers would recommend their employment model to others.

To sum up, if management makes sure that “remote work” doesn’t mean “more work” or a 24/7 stand-by mode, then you’ll likely see a positive impact on employees’ emotional, physical, and mental well-being. Enabling a healthier lifestyle, more local consumption, and more cooking of fresh food also means incremental reductions in emissions over time.

Ability for team members to live where they want

What makes for a ‘good remote work environment’? The single most important factor is a stable, fast internet connection. For this reason, as we’ll discuss in detail further in this piece, many workers move out of expensive residential areas to live where they please. This might not only help them reduce monthly living costs, but also lower the population density within cities.

With a reduction in density comes less intensity and demand on agricultural production processes. If the population continues to gradually spread more through urban and suburban areas, the transportation requirements will be less severe.

Source: Unspash

Reduced energy consumption from commuter transport

UK’s DecarboN8, an initiative that seeks to “decarbonate” transport, are clear on their recommendation – “work from home if you can''. What led them to this conclusion? 

Between February and June 2020, they’ve analyzed movement and public transport data for over 23 million devices, and cross-referred these numbers with overall CO2 emissions for 375 local districts. They’ve found that, on average, commuter transport emissions fell by 30-38%, as compared to pre-pandemic data. The highest positive change was seen in the lockdown’s fourth month, i.e., May 2020, when the emissions fell between a range of 40-78%. 

Non-profit EarthShare is consciously enacting a fully-remote business model to take advantage of the opportunity to reduce their environmental footprint. 

Unsurprisingly, the climate protection NGO has been exploring remote work for these reasons and EarthShare has now decided to go 100% remote. Their CEO, Brad Leibov shared in a statement:

“EarthShare began offering remote work opportunities over a decade ago as a tool to attract greater talent without geographical limitations, to promote greater autonomy, and to improve work-life balance by eliminating daily commutes. With the climate emergency top of mind, we hope our recent transition to a fully remote working environment will result in additional benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced fuel usage, and less office waste”.

Reduction of energy consumed from offices

It’s extremely difficult to give an accurate estimate of energy consumption per office. After all, offices come in all shapes, sizes, and geographical locations. They’re also based in all sorts of places – from old buildings to modern, eco-certified facilities. 

One recent study by 100%-remote tech company, Buffer, gives an indicator of how transitioning your operating model can contribute to the ecosystem in isolation.

By using an external carbon footprint calculator, Buffer estimated their 90-people organization would generate approximately 234 tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) a year, if they were to open an office in California. This would mean 2.6 tons per employee. Interestingly, a household of three generates 1.39 tons of annual emissions. And while Buffer couldn’t find specific data on how much remote work has affected these numbers, analysis of average consumption figures leads the company to confidently infer output would still be much lower than the 2.6 tons for an office-based team member.

Buffer’s Julliet Chen also points to other aspects of remote work, which contribute to lower CO2 emissions, with the move from on-site to cloud-based servers being one of them.

Ian Hambelton, Cofounder at Ecologi, also shares an interesting perspective on embracing a carbon neutral business strategy:

“There’s both a carrot and stick at play when it comes to transitioning to a net zero business."

Recent news from COP26 shows large UK firms being obliged to set Net Zero strategies, which should be expected to occur in many other nations, too. 

These pressures contain a huge inherent opportunity for businesses ready to take the lead. Meta analyses from the likes of Oxford University and Harvard Business School show that sustainable companies outperform their less environmentally-minded peers, with 88% of studies showing better operational and cash flow performance, and 80% showing greatly improved investment performance. 

The move to Net Zero business is shaping up to become “the fastest economic transition in history”. Innovative, growth-focused companies leading the change will reap the benefits ahead of their competitors. 

Remote work makes it easier for individual’s to reduce their emissions

McKinsey has put their AI models to work, checking whether many office-based employees genuinely have to do their work from company premises, or if this is likely to be more of a company preference.

They’ve analyzed the completion of over 2,000 different tasks, for over 800 roles, based across nine different countries. The research company found that at least 20% of employees don’t need an office to get their jobs done, and could be working from home either fully-remotely or at least three times a week. 

This raises another question – what would happen if these individuals were allowed to work entirely off-site? An estimate by IEA provides some answers. 

They’ve decided to look at the CO2 emissions change in a scenario, where everyone is allowed to work from home for just one day a week. 

The results are stark. 

We’d be looking at a reduction of 1% of global oil consumption per passenger, which translates to 24 million tonnes of CO2 a year. This is equal to the entire annual emissions of Greater London.

Remote workers tend to be more energy efficient

It’s hard to ignore the fact that employees who turned their homes into offices face higher energy bills. However, a remote work environment motivates them to function more efficiently and find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

For example, by avoiding leaving the light on unless necessary or keeping an optimal interior temperature. Telecommuters tend to be more environmentally aware, as expenses they incur while working from home often come out of their own pockets.

It’s worth noting that many employee-focused companies are considering this financial impact and developing stipends as part of a modern benefits package. To supplement the costs of working from home, employers can provide an equipment allowance for a desk and chair, and an energy or internet payment. These benefits are still exponentially more affordable than the fixed costs of commercial office space, and they demonstrate understanding and care to your team (helping you attract and retain better talent over time).

Reduction in urban air pollution

One of the undeniable environmental benefits of remote work is reduced air pollution. As companies reduce their reliance on in-person meetings and transition to implementing remote-first and asynchronous work practices – the need for air travel will dramatically decrease.

For instance, New Delhi is considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution levels have dropped by 42% in 2021.

The same phenomenon can be observed in Los Angeles, with a 25% improvement in air quality.

This is the result of a drastic reduction of vehicle usage caused by lockdowns and the necessity to work from home. A huge chunk of this air traffic reduction can be attributed to the halt on tourism and leisure travel, but the reduction in business travel also has a massive part to play.

Remote work improves quality of life, as people don’t have to move to polluted cities

Remote work gives people the option to choose where they want to live. Removing the reliance of proximity to work on this decision means people can vote with their feet and leave cities and regions where pollution levels are high.

Mass movement away from highly-polluted urban centers should also fast-track policy change to reduce this pollution in order to maintain economic stability.

Remote workers don’t have to be based in the same location as their employer. They can move to smaller, greener areas. Santa Barbara serves as a great illustration of this in action. The Californian region experienced a 124% net inflow population increase in summer 2020. The area is much cheaper than Los Angeles, with a significantly smaller carbon footprint. 

This trend isn’t limited solely to individuals. It’s been also picked up by entire companies who decided to ditch urban centers and move to lower-density locations. Both Oracle and Hewlett-Packard have opted to move their headquarters from Silicon Valley, and if this trend morphs into an exodus, we can expect positive environmental consequences.

In fact, even prior to COVID, many cities were already pedestrianizing traffic and introducing so-called 15-minute cities, where everything from shopping to services could be reached by foot. If more employers were to introduce full-time remote work, urban planners could finally see these and other eco-friendly changes come through.

Mark J Nieuwenhuijsen, IS Global’s Director of Urban Planning, Environment, and Health Initiative, leads the organization’s air pollution reduction programme. Mark agrees that “we should encourage and incentivise teleworking even if only for at least a few days a week”.

Barcelona is a great example of a city that has been consistently pushing motorized vehicles away from central districts. These changes fall perfectly in line with the expected, remote-first reality we’re likely to see post-COVID.

The city has decided to create a so-called “superblocks model”, with over 500 different areas restricting car movement in favor of pedestrian traffic and green space. The reduction of office space demand and a drop in commuters since the beginning of the pandemic have only reassured the city authorities that this has been the right decision. 

Superblocks model for greener urban planning

Reduced food and plastic waste

Remote work can lead to a massive decline in single-use plastic and food waste. However, there’s one condition – whenever possible, employees should dine-in, either at home or at restaurants, where there’s reusable cutlery.

By working from home, employees can certainly reduce waste resulting from snacks and take away coffee, which have both been long time staples for nine-to-five workers. In fact, this positive trend has already been observed by the EU’s European Environment Agency, who’ve reported a drop in sales of on-the-go food and beverage during the COVID-19 lockdown.

If employees chose to cook themselves or dine at restaurants that are free of single-use utensils, then we can expect to see a long-term positive influence of remote work on plastic waste.

Reduced paper usage

The reduction of paper usage is another environmental benefit of remote work worth acknowledging. According to research by the University of Southern Indiana, an average American uses 85 million tons of paper yearly, which translates into about 680 pounds per person.

When we work remotely, we have no choice but to share all our files online, through email, Google Drive or Slack. This way, remote workers are able to eliminate the use of 247 trillion sheets of papers, and as a result save up to 16 trillion trees a year

Practical steps to reduce your company’s environmental footprint

There are several ways you can make sure that you’re not ‘just’ implementing remote work, but are, in fact, investing in an environmentally-friendly remote work model. 

For starters, it’s worth giving Ecologi’s Climate Positive Workforce Initiative some thought. When a company signs up to their carbon offsetting program, Ecologi begins by finding a way to compensate for their CO2 emissions. Things like planting trees, funding renewable energy plants, or climate action are all practical contributions your business can make now to make a difference, while you plan a more structured transition to remote work.

Next, you should work with all relevant stakeholders to define your company’s environmental goals.

Implementing a fully-remote, eco-friendly operating model is a powerful objective to work towards, but you can break down the journey into smaller milestones along the way.

  • If you do have an office, make sure you use a renewable energy provider, and incentivise your remote workers to switch to a renewable energy provider at home too. 
  • Measure your carbon footprint as a business. From this benchmark, you can see where your emissions come from, which might be quick wins to reduce, and which will take more time and planning. 
  • For measuring a carbon footprint, you can either work with a consultancy (e.g. The Planet Mark), or use an automated footprinting tool such as Ecologi Zero.

You could also consider demonstrating your commitment as a first step. Various organizations make it easy to join a pledge to share resources with like minded business communities. Some examples include: 

How to lead by embracing a remote work culture

At Remote, we’ve done more than simply observe the remote work revolution unravel; we’ve also contributed to this ground-breaking change first-hand. Below, you’ll find a list of resources we’ve prepared at Remote that will give you a kick start in your remote work implementation.

For starters, begin with our Global Workforce Revolution report, which is your ultimate guide to building an inclusive, future-proof remote organization. Here are some other resources will help you reap the environmental benefits of remote work:

The importance of supportive remote-first management

Before you launch into developing a plan to transition into a remote-first operating model, remember the role that leaders must play to contribute to environmental targets. 

  • Make sure that your people managers and senior leaders develop processes that will facilitate the move to a remote-first culture
  • Make the decision as the company to follow environmentally-friendly practices, and set standards to hold everyone accountable 
  • People managers and senior leaders must also educate their staff on how to conduct work in a sustainable manner
  • Be proactive and educate your team to help them understand how to reduce their environmental footprint with smarter energy saving strategies
  • Introduce the right remote-first recruiting practices and make sure to spot candidates who not only have the right skills and experience, but also share your company’s values and mission (here’s how we do it at Remote)