Remote working: better for the environment, but how much?

With national lockdowns dramatically reducing almost all forms of travel, there was speculation that the pandemic might have a lasting impact on carbon emissions. Initially that seemed to be the case – daily emissions for April 2020 were 17% less than 2019 levels.

However, just a month later, the highest ever concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was recorded. This underlines just how much is needed to be done to have lasting change. As Professor Constantine Samaras pointed out in a National Geographic article: “A pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce emissions. There’s nothing to celebrate here. We have to recognize that and recognize that technological, behavioral and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions.”

Is remote working environmentally friendly?

Could part of that change come from a shift towards more permanent remote working? The closure of offices was almost certainly a factor in the emissions drop. The drop in commuting led to significant emissions reductions – in the UK, one report estimated emissions from road use alone to be at 60% of normal levels in April, while another suggested that transportation emissions in total dropped by 24%.

Global CO2 emissions

If this behavior was to remain, then another study found that if everybody able to work from home worldwide were to do so for just one day a week, it would save around 1% of global oil consumption for road passenger transport per year. Or to put it another way, regular homeworking could lead to an overall decline in 24 million tonnes of global CO2 emissions.

Offices closing also meant that energy usage in commercial centers dropped. However, much of that consumption will have shifted to homes, which may not have the same levels of insulation as newer facilities. In fact, the impact is such that according to one study, an average employee working at home all year round, would produce 2.5 tons of carbon per year – around 80% more than an office worker. This is mainly due to the need to heat their entire house during colder months.

Energy use will also have gone up through the increased use of videoconferencing that we have all seen. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex have all experienced significant spikes in growth, with one IDC analyst believing that, “we may have accelerated five to seven years' worth of adoption behavior” in the period since lockdowns began. This demand has meant greater energy consumption by the infrastructure, such as data centers, that supports the tools.

Balancing environmental needs with those of remote workforces

It is clear, therefore, that the boom in remote working is not necessarily going to have the impact on the environment that might have been expected. This leaves businesses with a dilemma – many were committed to being more socially and environmentally responsible, yet at the same time they are faced with the prospect of a workforce that is increasingly remote. Large, hyper-efficient office spaces could well be going to empty but still consuming energy.

What, then, do they do to adapt to this radically different approach to work and its potential impact on sustainability efforts?

Short- and long-term changes

In the long term, employers will need to align their physical locations and facilities with how their workforces are set up. A Gartner study from March found that 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home, while firms as varied as Google, Facebook, PWC, Schroders and Twitter have all made recent announcements relating to a more permanent shift to remote working.

However, it is unlikely that the vast majority of those who can work away from employer sites will do so indefinitely. At the same time, a return to pre-pandemic levels is equally unlikely. What the future of work looks like is possibly found somewhere in the middle, with a more even split between remote and office-based workers, and a majority that do both on a regular basis.

What this means from an environmental perspective is that businesses could move out of larger complexes and campuses to have smaller physical locations. However, with leases and legal ramifications, as well as the need to see how the way we work develops, this is very much on the horizon. For shorter-term actions, employers need to look at what measures they can enact now to reduce energy consumption in under-utilized offices.

Using technology and behavioral change

These could include combining Internet of Things (IoT) sensors with utilities (such as lighting, heating, air conditioning and water supply). When deployed in commercial spaces, this combination could identify when a building, or part of it, is in use and control the required utilities automatically.

Then there is the use of technology even when out of the office. As previously highlighted, the boom in videoconferencing has kept teams together and contributed to operational continuity but also consumes significant energy. With remote working now established, does every call need to be video based? A Zoom video call requires around 600 kbps for a high-quality video, while a Zoom phone call only needs between 60 and 100 kbps – a significant drop in bandwidth demand and, therefore, energy consumption.

Even actions as straightforward as limiting the number of recipients on emails or holding off sending large attachments can contribute to reducing the amount of energy required.

This aligns with Professor Samara’s point on the need for behavioral change. Employees might be working remotely, but there is still an opportunity for employers to provide clear guidance on sustainable IT practices when at home. This is particularly important when employees are using their own technology, rather than company-issued equipment, and so there is less corporate control over the devices or software being used.

Ultimately, if businesses want to continue in their push for greater environmental sustainability and lessen their impact, then they will need to rethink their existing approaches and apply them to the current situation. With a largely remote workforce, enterprises will need to put in place short-term measures to reduce their energy consumption, while also continuing to educate their employees on the need for sustainable practices, irrespective of where they are working.

To join in, watch our on-demand Next Normal: Sustainability webinar and learn all about sustainability in a post-COVID-19 world.