It has been over two years since COVID-19 first forced a massive shift to remote work. Since then, most companies have adapted to conduct business efficiently using more technology. For most workplaces, returning to pre-pandemic levels of in-person work is unlikely. How do we ensure that this permanent increase in remote work ends up reducing carbon emissions, as opposed to increasing them?
At first blush, remote work appears to be a boon for the environment. Fewer employees making the commute to the office reduces carbon emissions. For example, India’s second largest IT service provider, Infosys, reduced its carbon emissions by 46% in the year following the start of the pandemic. This number sounds good but is misleading.
It turns out that having your employees work from home doesn’t necessarily reduce their total carbon emissions. Although they’re no longer commuting, they’re now using more lights, computers, internet, heat and air conditioning in their own homes. They are also purchasing lunch food and office supplies, both of which have supply chains and associated emissions. Additionally, if your employees followed global trends, many moved during the pandemic from
cities to suburbs, where houses are bigger, public transportation is scarcer and driving is more commonplace. If their home offices are less energy efficient and if their purchasing decisions are less environmentally sustainable than yours as an employer, your team members could be spewing more carbon into the atmosphere as remote workers than as office workers. Despite its elimination of the commute and office use, remote work does not necessarily reduce carbon emissions.
Fortunately, your company can ensure that the modern remote-work era is climate friendly by:
1. Promoting clean and efficient home energy. Many companies have switched to purchasing renewable electricity for their operations. It’s time to consider doing the same for employee electricity use outside the office. Consider incentivizing or funding employee upgrades to clean power sources. Similarly, consider paying for employee home energy efficiency improvements.
2. Cutting down on business travel. Air travel is a bigger source of emissions than offices. Consider cutting back on nonessential business travel. Have employees to ask themselves “can this meeting or event be successful online?” before booking a ticket.
3. Encouraging public transportation. Consider company policies that reward or reimburse employees for use of public transit for work-related travel.
4. Measuring total impact. Calculate your company’s total emissions – including from commuting and use of home as office – to ensure you’re minimizing your company’s overall carbon footprint. This Watershed calculator can help.
In summary, if your company has many remote or hybrid workers, it’s time to include the carbon impact of employees working at home in your overall climate policies, measurement and goals.
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