Remote Work: Benefit For The Planet?

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by Jithin Joshey Kulatharayil
Image of woman working from home, on bed
With focus, working from home can remove daily obstacles and streamline life.

A few decades ago, remote work was not as prevalent or even considered a viable option for most companies. But improvements in technology, especially in teleconferencing and telework, have made it possible for employees to work from home and for companies to have a remote workforce. The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated this shift, as many companies have had to implement remote work policies to ensure the safety of their employees.

Drawbacks?

While remote work does come with its own set of advantages, such as reducing carbon emissions, increasing flexibility, and the ability to hire employees from anywhere in the world, it also has its own set of disadvantages. Some employees may find it difficult to separate work from home life, leading to burnout. Communication and collaboration can also be more challenging when working remotely.

Additionally, remote work can lead to feelings of isolation and a lack of connection with co-workers. Companies need to think about these possible problems and find ways to deal with them while still taking advantage of the benefits of remote work, mainly in terms of sustainability and the environment. 

Early Stages

There is also the fact that emissions have almost rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels, and that we neither have an accurate understanding of how different people will use energy and resources at home, nor any reliable method to measure it. How do companies compensate employees for WFH? How can we tabulate WFH energy use effectively so it may be applied towards corporate sustainability efforts? 

Clearly, WFH is in its early stages of development. However, while that process evolves, remote working does offer some clear benefits:

Resource Use Reduction 

Working from home can reduce resource pollution by changing habits: decreasing the use of disposable cups and other single-use plastic items, typically purchased from restaurants and cafes during work breaks. At home, we use reusable items, cups, glasses, and so forth. However, a study conducted by the International Energy Agency says that household emissions have significantly increased on weekdays by over 20%.

When companies make policies about working from home, they should think about how the energy use at home might affect the environment. This can vary a lot depending on things like the employee's personality, the way their home is set up, and even where they live and the time of year. To lessen these effects, companies can help pay for energy-efficient home improvements and teach their employees how to use less energy. Also, it's important to consider how remote work affects transportation emissions. While commuting emissions may go down, emissions from shipping and delivery services may go up. To ensure that a company's approach to remote work is sustainable, they need to have a big-picture view that looks at all of their operations.

Less Reliance on Private Cars

Employees almost always prefer to commute to work in private vehicles because they believe it will save them a significant amount of time compared to public transportation. However, the reverse is happening. In metropolitan cities, mostly private vehicles contribute to serpentine traffic blocks, emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) that also directly pollute the air and have a direct negative health effect on urban populations. 

Working from home, of course, removes this situation. The IEA study found that globally, we save almost 12 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) per year, or around 1% of total road passenger transport, through WFH. The key argument here is that transport energy reductions must be balanced against the potential energy use increase at home for heating, air conditioning, and overall residential consumption. The calculations bear out at a net energy use decrease of 8.5 Mtoe, or an annual CO2 reduction of 24 Mt. 

Less private car use for work is likely a good thing. 

Image of traffic jam in crowded urban environment

Rural Development And Less Urban Congestion

Cities offer greater work opportunities than rural areas. This leads to congestion, pollution, lack of space, waste generation, and other factors that, taken collectively, contest the notion that urban living is ‘better’. However WFH stands to reduce the burden on cities, redistributing talent to some extent back to rural areas. 

As remote workers, people may choose to live in smaller towns where they can enjoy a better quality of life, develop community, and still service the larger cities. There is ample evidence that this “reverse brain drain” is helping revitalise many areas, while positively impacting the health of both individuals and the communities they join.

WFH Picks Up

It's likely that WFH will continue to be a big trend in the years to come. Remote work can be beneficial for the environment by reducing the number of people commuting to work and reducing carbon emissions. Many organisations are recognising the benefits of remote work and making it a permanent option for their employees. 

In case of future epidemics or outbreaks or even pandemics, remote work is also being thought of as a backup plan in fields like banking, teaching, and education and other fields. Remote work is seen as a way to ensure continuity of operations during such crises.

Outlook 

For companies, WFH will surely exist as a greater component of our working lives than before. Working out exactly what that means in terms of energy and climate will take a little more time, but the best advice for a business right now is to ensure, for all employees, that you have two tech fixes in place: a single place for everyone to effectively communicate (think Slack, etc.); and a single place for everyone to effectively store information (think Dropbox, etc.).

The rest will work itself out. On average, it’s likely to be a better thing for the planet.

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