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Car engines running, office heaters pumping – work as we know it has a substantial carbon footprint. Shouldn’t workers ditch the drive to a large office building and trade it in for the commute from their bed to their computer?

The answer to creating a more sustainable future of work is not quite that simple. It may seem intuitive to believe that working from home is universally better for the environment year-round. Sustainability, after all, relies on a reduction in emissions, much of which come from petrol-powered engines in commuter cars and the massive amount of energy consumed by large buildings. Working remotely would seem to solve many of these problems: zero commute, and fewer seats to heat and cool in offices.

That may not be case, however – or not exactly.

Research from WSP UK, a London-based consulting firm specialising in engineering, shows that remote work in the UK may only be more environmentally friendly in the summer. Examining the carbon output of 200 UK-based workers across different locations, researchers found that the environmental impact of remote work was higher in the winter due to the need to heat individual workers’ buildings versus one office building.

“Energy management in buildings is generally more sophisticated than at individual homes,” says David Symons, Future Ready Lead and Director of Sustainability at WSP UK. Because each individual remote worker keeps the heating on and tends to heat the entire house, working in a single office building ends up having a lower impact – even with the commute added in.

Aircon is a major sustainability variable, as it usually consumes more energy than heating (Credit: Getty Images)

In the summer, however, working from home makes environmental sense because consumption of energy is far lower than in the winter. “We don’t have air con in the UK, so as a result it’s much more carbon efficient to work from home in the summer because you haven’t got heating,” says Symons.

Global variables

The question of work-from-home sustainability, however, is an onion: there are far more layers to the answer than one study of UK workers can provide.

Chief among these is that energy consumption patterns around the world are incredibly varied. For instance, in Norway, more than 40% of vehicles sold in 2019 were electric – an increase of a third over the prior year. The impact of commutes in Norway, and throughout the Nordic countries, is far lower than other parts of the world that are still highly reliant on petrol, such as the UK and US. And many major cities that consume substantial energy don’t rely on cars for commuting, but rather public transport. Each of these individual elements shifts the calculus for when working from home is more sustainable in each city, region or country.

Then there’s air conditioning, which is a major variable.

Different regions of the world derive energy from different sources, some more sustainable than others

Many countries, including the US, rely on cooling far more than the UK. Aircon generally consumes more energy than heating, which means that cooling individual workers’ homes has even more of an impact than heating each home. As a result, it’s likely that calculations in aircon-dependent countries would look more like the UK wintertime calculations, says Kenneth Gillingham, Associate Professor of Environmental and Energy Economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In other words, it may not be efficient to work from home in the winter or the summer in these places.

But Gillingham adds that measuring remote-worker impact doesn’t stop at temperature regulation and commuting. “It does very much depend on where the electricity is coming from,” he says.

This means that thekindof energy used can also tip the scales. Different regions of the world derive energy from different sources, some more sustainable than others. A country such as Iceland uses a significant amount of clean geothermal energy to power both commercial buildings and homes. Sources also vary within certain countries, says Gillingham. He points to the US, in which some regions use hydro-power (clean) versus coal power (dirty).

Reforestation is one method of offsetting emissions, as it isolates carbon from the atmosphere in new trees and soil (Credit: Getty Images)

Even this article has a wildly fluctuating footprint. I’ve written it in the northeastern US where it’s -1C degrees; I’m working from my home office and heating my entire house with gas heat. The next stop is to an editor working from home in Jamaica, where it’s 31C; she’s cooling her home office using aircon powered by fossil fuels. Finally, the editor who will sign off is in New Zealand, where it’s a delightfully temperate 20C, and no heating or cooling is required ­– but even it was, it’d likely be powered by renewable energy.

Distributed emissions

American automation-tool company Zapier, which has 320 employees working in 27 countries, is among the first fully remote companies to purchase carbon offsets to compensate for their footprint. CEO Wade Foster – who used to work in energy himself – says that last year Zapier offset 647 tonnes of carbon through reforestation. The estimate included the footprint from home offices, corporate infrastructure such as servers as well as travel, including bi-yearly team retreats.

But even as companies with a heavy work-from-home infrastructure make substantial strides to reduce their impact, it is still possible that the calculations used to offset emissions may not be complete.

‘What if we redesigned what it’s like to live based on how people are working?’ – Wade Foster

For instance, distributed companies also have a footprint through what Gillingham explains as ‘Scope 3’ emissions. These emissions involve general business activities such as supply chain, office supply purchases, etc. Say a company gives each remote worker £1,000 ($1,300) to set up a home office. The emissions to ship those supplies to each individual worker start tallying up in Scope 3, and could potentially be greater than shipping one larger box to a main office.

This view doesn’t diminish the effort that companies with a heavy work-from-home infrastructure are making. But we may need to rethink – or at least re-examine – what the full picture of a remote-work footprint really is.

Swinging the pendulum

If sustainability is the future of the planet, then the remote jobs that seem like the future of work may not actually be. In fact, workers may end up back in offices.

Blame it on technology. Low-emission forms of transport such as electric vehicles are quickly becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous – even the gas-guzzling GM Hummer is going electric. Additionally, some places such as the Portland in US state of Oregon don’t allow new constructions to burn fossil fuels. With these improvements, which are on track to outpace innovation for individual homes, there could be a point at which it’s never more efficient to work from home anywhere in the world.

When it comes to temperature, heating one office building can be more sustainable than heating each worker’s own home (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, the push to work from anywhere is loud and forceful, as are workers’ demands for environmental responsibility, says Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Australia’s Bond Business School. Plus, she adds, it’s simply more expensive for companies to have physical offices.

These factors could mean that there’s also a possible future in which sustainability efforts would pivot to favour creating solutions for remote workers instead. “We live in a world that’s been built around working from the office,” says Zapier’s Foster. “What if we redesigned what it’s like to live based on how people are working?”

A near-term happy medium between working remotely and working from the office could be a company having their employees work from home on the same day, says Gillingham. Companies wouldn’t have to use office energy on those days, and also wouldn’t have to use energy for empty seats when people scatter their remote days.

But with people working remotely at all, the burden of carbon impact may inadvertently fall on employees as it becomes incumbent on individual workers to invest in their own lower-emission infrastructure. People are trying to find their own solutions – such as installing solar panels or smart thermostats – but it’s all a work in progress.

WSP’s Symons says that if you’re going to work from home, only cool or heat the room in which you’re working. It’s the “nirvanic answer”, he says. At least for now.

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