- Assumptions are often made that working from home is better for the environment but research indicates that this may not be the case.
- Calculating our carbon footprints is complex – it requires individuals and workplaces to conduct their own energy consumption audits.
- Cop 26 has highlighted the need for businesses and industry leaders to do much more if we are serious about realizing net zero emission targets.
The issue is not clear cut
During the height of the pandemic, we were able to reflect on the impact that our collective daily commute to work had been having on the environment. It’s hard to forget those aerial images of smog-free (or at least drastically reduced), empty cities.
Working from home seemed to be a panacea to the damage our work-related travel was causing the planet. That was then.
The latest research now indicates that although remote work can be more environmentally-friendly, any gains are often offset by large office buildings sitting empty for days or being underutilized.
The hybrid model isn’t working for the environment
A hybrid model of working is generally viewed as the ideal practice for employees, but in reality, it can actually be more harmful to the environment.
Creating the perfect work environment at home often relies on developing the infrastructure that you have in the office. This process of duplication increases energy consumption and consequently, raises our carbon footprint.
Whilst we are working from home, fully functioning office buildings are often left empty or under-utilized. There is nothing about this way of working that is ideal for the environment.
It would also appear that most businesses have not yet addressed the issue of energy expenditure in relation to the number of employees in the office on any given day.
Suburban migration leaves big footprints
Being locked-down during the pandemic led many people to recognize the importance of having outdoor space. Working from home has given people the opportunity to move further from the cities.
Suburban homes tend to have much more outdoor space – but they also tend to be less energy efficient. This is especially true of older houses with outdated heating controls. Living in the suburbs also means longer commutes in to work on office days.
Working from home is a fairly new phenomenon which requires innovative thinking focused on how we manage our carbon footprints. This context is particularly important when evaluating the sustainability of working practices.
According to a recent news article, the COP26 Summit has provided renewed urgency around conversations on the sustainability of how we work.
The role of the employer
Employers ought to shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring that their employees act as eco-friendly as possible when working from home.
Where feasible, incentives should be offered to employees to replicate office-based, sustainable work practices.
Incentives could focus on initiatives such as: walking or cycling to work on office days; bringing freshly prepared food to the office instead of buying pre-packaged lunches; and, using fewer non-recyclables at home.
Net zero emissions and the role of business
Net zero can only be achieved when the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere does not exceed that which is taken out. Sustainability relies on decreasing carbon emissions and energy consumption as a society.
Clean sources of energy such as solar power, wind energy, hydropower, and geothermal energy need to replace fossil fuels, coal, and other sources of non-renewable energy.
Businesses can play their part by focusing on substantial waste reduction and changing the way in which energy is utilized. More companies need to sign up to initiatives such as the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign and pledge their commitment to environmental policies.
At COP26, Scottish businesses committed to be carbon net-zero by 2045. They are taking action now in order to benefit from the environmental gains and financial rewards in the future.
Where we work could depend on the season
Working from home requires us to rethink how we use energy. How do we heat, light up, cool, and generate power in our homes?
Is it better for people to be together in one heated office during the coldest, winter months? Or will people take individual responsibility to reduce energy consumption when working from home during the winter (such as heating only the room where you work as opposed to the entire house)?
Research conducted by London-based consulting firm WSP UK recommends that in our endeavors to reduce our carbon footprint, UK employees should consider working from home more in the warmer months.
Energy management is often better in offices than individual homes and easier during the summer months when less energy is typically consumed. In the UK, most homes do not have air conditioning systems. Therefore, working from home during the summer in the UK would be more energy efficient than working in an office with a large cooling facility.
In comparison, there are parts of the US where working from home during the hot summer months would not necessarily be more energy efficient because these homes rely on cooling systems.
A renewed commitment is key
If working from home (or a combination of being office and home-based) is to be a sustainable fixture in terms of the future of work, there needs to be renewed thinking about how we reduce energy consumption.
In order to make real strides towards meeting carbon reduction targets, incentives need to be offered to individuals working from home as well as businesses.
Individual elements – such as where you work, how you travel for work, the climate you operate in, and the type of home you occupy – all shift the calculation of one’s carbon footprint.
Crucially, it’s what we do both at home and in the office to reduce energy waste and create a more sustainable work environment that will make a measurable difference.