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Reduce, Reuse, Don't Email: Sustainability Tips for the Digital Workplace

February 08, 2021 Digital Workplace
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

In a relatively short period of time, technology has revolutionized the way in which we work. Businesses have shifted operations to the cloud and employees login to work remotely from home or other locations around the world. 

This supercharged digital workplace has brought several benefits including gains in productivity, improved work/life balance for employees who no longer commute and trimmed IT maintenance costs. It's assumed that shorter commutes, fewer cars on the road and less business travel have been a net positive for the environment. But digital work's impact on the environment isn't so simply summed up.

When everyone worked in the same location, companies could undertake large-scale initiatives to do their part and support the environment, such as going paperless and encouraging alternative transportation methods. But how can businesses enact green initiatives in a digital workplace? Could remote work actually cause more harm than good for the environment in the long run? 

Here's what some executives had to say about sustainability in a digital world. 

The Environmental Costs of Working from Home

When many think of remote work and sustainability, they immediately think that with less people commuting daily and fewer cars on the road, it is automatically more beneficial for the environment due to fewer carbon emissions. 

The reality is more electricity consumption and higher bills as people work from home using multiple devices. That has a big impact on the environment. According to British consulting firm WSP, an employee working from home full time in the UK would produce 2.5 tons of carbon emissions per year. This is roughly 80% more than that same worker would produce working in an office. 

Given the fact that more employees are working from home, companies need to recalculate their impact on carbon emissions, said Francisco J. Michref, public affairs and sustainability manager for Globant, a software development firm with more than 11,000 global employees.

“We've coordinated different actions such as promoting the hiring of renewable energy suppliers or giving benefits for our employees to buy energy-efficient household appliances to reduce energy consumption at home,” he said. 

When it comes to calculating the total costs, it doesn’t appear that cloud computing, a pivotal component of the digital workplace, is a primary driver. Huge server farms do require massive amounts of power, but a 2018 study by Microsoft (which provides cloud computing services, it should be noted) indicated that cloud computing can be up to 93% more energy efficient than on-premise servers.

What that indicates is that employers should focus on employees if they want to lower their carbon footprint and create a sustainable digital workplace. 

Related Article: Is Remote Work Good or Bad for the Environment?

Creating Sustainability in the Digital Office

Given the potential costs associated with a digital workplace, companies need to analyze their environmental sustainability efforts carefully to reduce energy bills and their carbon footprint.

Vytenis Pakenas, CEO at Vilnius, Lithuania-based Lucid Agreements, a provider of transcription and automation software, provides four key tips that any organization can implement: 

  1. Use instant messaging rather than email.
  2. Use collaborative tools or the company’s internal social network.
  3. Use energy-efficient equipment and eco-design software and applications.
  4. Reduce the number of notes that employees take during meetings. 

Given its digital nature, email might seem like it wouldn't have a large impact but Globant's Michref points out it actually does.

“In a year, an average person in the developed world adds 136 kg of CO2 to their carbon footprint from the emails they send and receive," he said. "By changing these email habits, employees can avoid the equivalent of driving up to 200 miles in a family car."

Company managers can also go a step further to make their digital workplaces green. “Be aware of the reality of the usage of resources in your workplace and implement tools to measure and audit energy spends accurately,” said Pakenas. 

He recommended simple steps like replacing traditional lighting with LEDs and using energy-efficient workstations for those who may spend time in physical locations. Overall, employers should try wherever possible to promote environmentally friendly habits.

Remote work doesn’t mean that employees will be limited to working from their homes either. When local regulations and health status allow, they could also choose to use co-working spaces or coffee shops. When they do, employers should be ready with tips to lessen their environmental impact.

“In regards to employee commuting, employers can encourage the use of bicycles, electric scooters or just walking to reduce greenhouse emissions,” Michref said. 

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