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Is Remote Work Good or Bad for the Environment?

July 08,2020 Leadership
Debbie Levitt
By Debbie Levitt

Remote work sounds great, but is it sustainable and/or good for the environment? Let's begin by looking at the typical arguments from both sides.

First let's look at the common reasons remote work is considered bad for the environment:

  • Office buildings are designed to utilize energy better than homes. Therefore, getting everybody into a heated or cooled building used less energy than each worker heating or cooling their individual home.
  • Materials and transportation to ship supplies or equipment to remote workers burn environmental resources.
  • People working from home might need to travel more to have in-person meetings or to see clients.
  • The energy and bandwidth you use on things like video calls translate to CO2 emissions, meaning that computer and internet usage aren’t without consequences.

Now here are the arguments that remote work is good for the environment:

  • Commuting is reduced or eliminated for remote workers. This saves on the gas or electricity your vehicle needed. This also reduces traffic and wear on roads, emissions and greenhouse gasses from vehicles, and pollution.
  • People might use less paper, printing and copying fewer pages when at home vs. in an office.
  • When people eat at home, they use less of the paper and plastic cups, utensils and other supplies normally in an office kitchen. If the office has non-environmentally-friendly coffee pod machines that the worker doesn’t have at home, that waste will also be reduced.
  • The energy needed to power the lighting and other equipment in the office would be greatly reduced with fewer people in the office, or due to a company shifting to a smaller office space.
  • Less furniture and equipment (phones, copy machines, printers, etc.) would need to be purchased (and possibly manufactured). This would lead to less usage of supplies that are often non-sustainable such as ink cartridges.

There are some additional benefits to remote working that are more human than environmental, but are related to the above environmental issues:

  • Employee lateness due to traffic and mass transit issues would be reduced when people no longer have to commute.
  • Workers’ chances of being in a commuting-related accident would be reduced, saving lives and reducing the company costs associated with an absent employee.
  • The number of missed days due to illnesses spreading around offices would be greatly reduced. While it might cost less to heat or cool an office building than individual homes, the recycled or circulated air means that colds and flus tend to spread more quickly at the workplace than they might if people weren’t spending hours within feet of sick colleagues.

What About My Video Calls Causing CO2 Emissions?

There is a statistic that says that one hour of an ultra HD video call creates 2.8 kg of CO2 per participant. Let’s imagine that in today’s meeting-heavy world — which also needs to change — we are having an average of 3 hours of video calls per day. Multiply by approximately 260 workdays in a year, and you personally are emitting 2,184 kg of CO2 per year for your video calls.

If bandwidth translates to CO2 emissions in this ratio, then we must also consider the environmental effects caused by watching videos, uploading or downloading files, and other bandwidth-heavy activities.

An example of a solution is Zapier, who has 320 employees, all remote. In 2019, Zapier bought 647 metric tons (1,000 kg each) of carbon offsets via reforestation. This represents an average of 2,022 kg emitted per employee per year.

This is a great start, but perhaps a company could pay for 5 metric tons per employee, contractor, or other type of worker to cover video calls as well as other energy and materials consumed. Investing in more reforestation or environmental improvements than your estimated utilization means we don’t just neutralize our effects, but we start giving back to the environment.

Carbon offsets can cost as low as $20 U.S. per metric ton, which would mean an investment of only $100 per worker per year. Even if your selected carbon offsets for reforestation were $100 per metric ton, this is still only $500 per worker per year. This should be in every company’s budget.

Is Remote Working Environmentally Friendly?

Most signs point to yes, remote working is more helpful to the environment than not. While this has been debated for years, it became clearer when people noticed the positive environmental changes during the pandemic lockdown, however, only part of the environment improvements seen during the lockdown would be caused by workers staying out of offices.

Behaviors that are causing stress to the environment can be changed and improved. Many of us would prefer fewer meetings, both over video and in-person. How we heat or cool our homes or apartments can be improved by more energy efficient appliances and approaches. Workers might need a welcome kit with equipment shipped to them, but most types of businesses and workers are unlikely to require a constant flow of shipments. With the pandemic forcing us to conduct meetings over phone or video calls, perhaps in-person meetings can continue to be decreased in the future, reducing the environmental impact of travel.

Ultimately, remote work wins over office work for a variety of factors, including sustainability and environmental friendliness.

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