Does Working from Home Actually Promote Sustainability?

It is thought that working from home (WFH) employees have less environmental impact than their coworkers who go to the office physically; however, this isn't always the truth. In reality, WFH is not an apparent environmental gain when various ecological net effects are considered, including elements like energy and technology utilization.

All businesses should be concerned with environmental sustainability, so they must keep this in mind as they create policies addressing the environmental need. WFH is one of the recent policies undertaken by organizations, and it needs to be sustainable in more ways than just the basic commuting trade-off calculation. Businesses are already testing various remote work models after the pandemic. 


The COVID-19 Effect

The largest remote work ‘experiment’ in history was made possible by the COVID-19 epidemic, which also accelerated a long-term trend toward flexible, distant work and digitization. During the epidemic’s peak, the percentage of persons working from home increased from five percent to 37 percent in the United States alone. As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly fades away, more businesses are experimenting with new remote work models because 91 percent of employees want to keep doing hybrid or remote work. Conversely, 76 percent of the companies are open to continuing remote work in the future. 


Sustainability Paradox

Recent research by the Global Carbon Project, emissions are now getting close to where they were before the pandemic. Despite the continued use of remote or hybrid working, our environmental sustainability improvements have started to diminish. The reason is remote work may result in higher energy use, particularly for heating, according to research by WSP UK. Even with WFH, the consequences for sustainability are heavily reliant on pertinent employee behaviors, particularly in energy, travel, technology, and waste management.

According to at least eight studies, COVID-19 limits CO2 emissions and air pollution while raising energy consumption. Another study by WSP UK, a London-based engineering consulting firm, reported that remote work might only be more environmentally beneficial during the summer – at least in the UK. It was discovered that the environmental impact of remote work during the season was more remarkable due to the requirement for individual heating in the winter as opposed to the heating of one office building.

The circumstance, however, is not universal. In the US, summertime cooling is more significant than wintertime heating. Kenneth Gillingham at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies suggests that the situation is the opposite in America. Additionally, it does not end there because the energy source determines how ecologically beneficial the cooling or heating is. While some areas rely on hydropower, others on coal.

The flexibility provided by WFH allows time often devoted to commuting to be moved for leisure and other activities, which adds to the higher home energy consumption mentioned above. Additionally, pollutant production did not completely stop between April and June 2020 but switched to other forms, according to research from the University of Manchester.

Moreover, WFH was popularized by millennials and Gen Z, the first generation to be born with access to the internet. Over 72 million laptops were supplied over the period, an increase of 11 percent over average sale numbers. Sales of desks and office chairs increased by 300 percent and 438 percent, respectively, as home office furniture sales increased even more. Furthermore, to make use of their extra free time, individuals added rooms, garages, kitchens, and gardens to their homes, which resulted in an overall increase in energy usage. The pollution at the time was primarily caused by these massive increases.


Future Outlook Orientation 

Organizations have the opportunity to change how they conduct business and adjust to new behavioral trends. But working from home would need to be tried out to genuinely be environmentally beneficial. Setting up an environmentally friendly workstation may ultimately rely on employees to lessen their personal carbon footprint. The impact goes beyond transportation and temperature control because there are also problems with energy supplies. This would increase the government’s interference not just in the personal lives of workers, their families, and their daily routines but also in how the government formulates its overall energy strategy. As a result of the addition of a new scope dimension, this will further complicate corporate ESG (Environment, Social & Government) targets, such as those related to carbon footprint goals. The continuation of WFH may necessitate the establishment of new standards and calculating methodologies for the previously unseen footprints of remote working.

In the end, it can be said that WFH has both positive and negative sides. The advantages of WFH for the environment include less travel time, paper use, and administrative expenses associated with travel. It is somehow beneficial for the environment but not solely responsible for reducing carbon footprint. Therefore, there should be clear guidance for it, and the WFH decision needs to be incorporated from the government policy side and the organization’s strategic level.



Photo: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock


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