Is being an office or remote employee better? Even after COVID-19 taught many of us to love working from home, it remains a polarizing question. Bosses who want employees back in the office often cite the unique collaborations you can only get when employees are physically near each other. Employees who prefer working from home say they can get more done without the interruptions and politics of being in an office.
Now you can add one more point in favor of working from home: It could help the planet.
The more greenhouse gas emissions get released into our atmosphere, the hotter our planet is going to get ― and the more disastrous consequences that could have for our future. That’s why reducing carbon emissions on an individual and society level is so important. And a new study published on Sept. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA found that cutting down commutes and office building use makes a big difference when it comes to that.
Using government surveys on energy consumption and Microsoft employee data, the researchers found that U.S. employees who worked from home full-time reduced their emissions by more than half of what workers in an office are able to do. The study also found that even just a few days at home in hybrid arrangements could have an environmental impact.
Why is working from home more of a win for the planet?
It’s mainly because of the transportation emissions from commutes and energy use in office spaces at-home employees avoided, the study found.
Office buildings are a major contributor to overall emissions. According to a 2019 International Energy Agency report, the buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions.
“Remote workers tend to make fewer trips to the office. Those who adopt remote or hybrid work arrangements have the opportunity to share office space, thereby effectively reducing the carbon footprint associated with office
buildings, which includes heating, air conditioning, and ventilation,” the study’s co-author Fengqi You of Cornell University, told HuffPost.
How often you need to WFH to see a difference.
Working from home just one day a week only reduced employees’ carbon footprint by around 2%, while two or four days a week of remote work reduced a person’s emissions by up to 29% compared with office workers.
You said this is because emissions from commuting only go down a bit with just one day of working from home. It’s also because of the energy waste that can happen when an office building desk space is just for one person.
“For remote or hybrid workers who do not maintain a dedicated desk, but instead share desk space with others, the need for office space can be effectively reduced, significantly lowering the carbon footprint,” You said. “However, if a remote or hybrid worker keeps a dedicated desk and office space, the reduction in emissions from office building energy use would be minimal, as the sharing effect is not utilized.”
Todd Vachon, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and author of “Clean Air and Good Jobs: U.S. Labor and the Struggle for Climate Justice,” said the study shows that “the benefits of remote work are really only maximized when office buildings are completely closed, as opposed to remaining open and running lights and HVAC equipment for a small number of onsite workers while remote or hybrid workers run these same utilities at home during the same hours.”
Remote work comes with its own costs, too.
Working from home doesn’t necessarily mean we’re cutting down on our carbon footprint as much as we’d hope either though. When people work from home, they are still doing activities that cause emissions, just on social activities instead of work.
The study found that non-commute travel, such as trips for social and recreational activities, goes up as the number of remote work days increases. Hybrid workers in the study’s data often had longer commutes than onsite workers due to differing housing choices.
“With the flexibility of remote work, people, including myself, can choose to schedule appointments or errands during off-peak hours, which saves time,” said Elizabeth Patton, associate professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of “Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office.”
Working from home can also equal bigger bills for employees who have to pay for upgrades their employer used to cover. Patton said the study’s findings highlighted the hidden costs to working from home.
“We’re all suddenly shouldering the bills for utilities, Wi-Fi and even printing, which used to be covered by our offices. It’s not just about the extra money; it’s about the environmental implications, too,” Patton said. “I suspect that more companies will offer to subsidize these costs.”
How you can reduce your carbon footprint.
If you work from home and want to make a bigger difference in reducing your carbon footprint, look at what you are using to travel, You said.
“For work or non-work related trips, options like exploring ride-sharing or using electric vehicles can be effective,” he said. “At home, upgrading to energy-efficient household appliances and utilizing more renewable energy sources, such as solar power through rooftop solar panels, serve as critical means for reducing carbon emissions.”
You also said employees can consider using energy-efficient electronics and appliances at home, or sharing resources in offices. “For example, an office printer might be more carbon-efficient than one used at home,” he said.
And if you’re making your own lunch everyday, that can help reduce your carbon footprint too as a remote worker.
“While remote workers appear to do more non-work-related travel, they are also likely to eat more home-prepared meals thus generating less waste from packaging, disposable utensils, cups, plates and containers,” Vachon said.
For Vachon, the study shows that factors like commuting patterns are just one of the many important pieces of a more comprehensive approach to climate change.
“Until we see the wide-scale adoption of electric vehicles and public transit options, I don’t imagine climate-conscious employers making major decisions about remote work based solely on their impact on carbon footprints,” he said.