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Remote vs office : Which one is greener?

In this article we explore which working arrangement has the least environmental impact - working from the office or working from home.
Business
2024-01-15T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
colleagues in an office

There’s no denying that the landscape of work has undergone a huge shift in recent years, with remote work evolving from a not-so-common ‘job perk’ to something that many employees now expect. This change, propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in a transition from traditional office settings to more flexible work-from-home options - a trend that shows no sign of abating. As of now, a significant portion of the global workforce participates in some form of remote work, either full-time or through hybrid models that blend in-office and at-home work. Pushing questions around productivity aside, this has left many wondering which option is the most sustainable - working from home or working in the office. 

While remote work eliminates daily commutes, leading to a reduction in transportation emissions, it also increases home energy use and alters lifestyle habits. On the other hand, office work - traditionally seen as less eco-friendly due to commuting and office energy consumption - has its own set of environmental implications. This article explores this complex debate, unraveling which work model - remote or office - is the greener choice. 

👉 In this article we explore which working arrangement has the least environmental impact - working from the office or working from home.

The rise of remote work

A shift in work dynamics

Before the pandemic, remote work was already steadily increasing in popularity - albeit at a gradual pace (an estimated 5.7% of the workforce worked remotely in 2019). Technological advancements and changing attitudes toward work-life balance have begun to reshape the traditional office-based model. However, the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 rapidly accelerated this shift. Businesses and employees worldwide had no other option but to adopt remote working practices almost overnight, transforming it from a convenience into a necessity.

A surge in numbers

Post-pandemic data shows that remote work is a growing trend. As of 2023, 12.7% of full-time employees in the US were working entirely from home, while 28.2% had adopted a hybrid model of working. This is projected to increase in the coming years, with an estimated 22% of the US workforce working remotely by 2025. These figures signify a fundamental change in the way we work.

Environmental considerations

As the remote work model solidified its presence, questions regarding its environmental impact came to the forefront. Does the reduction in commuting and office resource utilization make remote work a more sustainable option? Or do the increased energy consumption at home and changes in lifestyle patterns offset these benefits? 

two co-workers in a meeting

Environmental impacts of office work

The commuter's carbon footprint

One of the most significant environmental impacts of traditional office work is the carbon footprint associated with commuting. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation contributes about 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with a large portion arising from personal vehicle use. This figure is reflected in other Western countries, in the UK for example transportation accounts for 26% of the UK’s total emissions. 

Commuting therefore contributes significantly to our carbon emissions. In the US for example, the average commute time is just under an hour, traveling a distance of around 32 miles, which equates to 3.2 tonnes of CO2 per person every year!

Energy consumption in the office

Office buildings are substantial energy consumers, accounting for a significant portion of energy use in the commercial sector. In the US, commercial buildings, including offices, consume nearly 17% of the nation’s energy, with heating, cooling, and lighting being the primary energy demands. The energy used to power an office building contributes significantly to its carbon footprint. 

Waste generation: paper and plastic

Waste generation in office environments, particularly paper and plastic, also contributes to the environmental impact. Despite the digital age, paper usage remains high in many offices. The average office worker in the US uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. Moreover, single-use plastics for food packaging and disposable utensils in office pantries further add to the waste problem. Recycling and waste reduction efforts can mitigate this, but the overall impact is still considerable.

💡 Studies give us an estimate of the average office worker’s carbon footprint. It’s calculated that the average daily carbon footprint of an office worker is 6.6 kgCO2e per day per person or 33.02 kgCO2e per week. This is based on the assumption that the worker commutes 5 days a week, works 8 hours per day, and travels the same distance every day.

👉 Discover how you can reduce the carbon footprint of your office space in our article

Environmental impacts of remote work

Reduction in commuting and emission cuts

Research shows that full-time remote workers can reduce their emissions by 54% (when compared to office working. A major contributor to this saving in emissions can be attributed to the significant reduction in commuting. Avoiding daily travel to and from the office significantly decreases carbon emissions. The World Economic Forum, for example, highlights that telecommuting could permanently remove 14 million cars from US roads. 

Increased home energy consumption

However, remote work shifts the energy consumption from the office to the home. The International Energy Agency, for example, reported an increase in household energy consumption during the pandemic lockdowns, when many people had no other choice but to work remotely. In some parts of the US, average residential electricity use on weekdays was up by 20% to 30%. And in the UK, residential electricity consumption rose by 15% in the days after the lockdown began. 

ICT usage and carbon footprint

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) usage in remote work settings, encompassing computers, internet infrastructure, and mobile devices, also contributes to environmental impact. However, studies suggest that this impact is relatively minor in the broader context. 

Researchers from Cornell University and Microsoft analyzed data, including Microsoft's employee commute and remote work patterns, to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from office, remote, and hybrid workers in the U.S. They focused on energy use in both office and home settings and found that IT and communications technology had a minimal impact on individual carbon footprints.

Lifestyle changes and non-commute travel

Remote work also brings about lifestyle changes that can impact the environment. A significant factor is the increase in non-commute travel. With more flexibility in their schedules, remote workers might engage in more frequent, although shorter, trips for errands or leisure, potentially offsetting some of the carbon emission savings from reduced commuting. Additionally, there may be changes in consumption patterns, such as increased online shopping, which involves delivery and packaging, contributing to a different set of environmental impacts.

💡 Studies give us an estimate of the average remote worker’s carbon footprint. It’s calculated that the average daily carbon footprint of an office worker is 2.67 kgCO2e per day per person or 13.35 kgCO2e per week. 

👉 Learn more about the environmental impacts of remote working in our article

at home office

Hybrid work model

Defining the hybrid work model

The hybrid work model combines elements of both remote and office settings, offering employees the flexibility to split their time between working from home and the office. This model has gained popularity as a middle ground, attempting to balance the benefits of remote work with the need for in-person collaboration and office presence.

Environmental impacts and reduction in emissions

Hybrid work arrangements have the potential to significantly reduce emissions, mainly through decreased commuting. By allowing employees to work from home for part of the week, the overall travel-related carbon footprint is lowered. According to research, working remotely two or four days a week reduced an individual’s emissions by up to 29% compared with on-site workers.

However, optimizing the hybrid model for environmental benefits presents challenges. For example, if office buildings remain fully operational despite reduced occupancy, the potential energy savings may not be fully realized. Additionally, the increase in non-commute travel on remote workdays - where employees use the flexibility to run errands or attend social events for example - can also offset some of the environmental gains from reduced commuting.

Considerations for effective implementation

To maximize the environmental benefits of the hybrid model, companies need to consider strategies like downsizing or repurposing office space, encouraging public transportation, and fostering a culture of environmental responsibility among employees. 

💡 Studies give us an estimate of the average remote worker’s carbon footprint. It’s calculated that the average daily carbon footprint of an office worker is 4.24 kgCO2e per day per person or 21.22 kgCO2e per week. Based on an assumption of two days office work, and three days remote working.

Mitigating factors and considerations

Incorporating renewable energy sources

One significant way to mitigate the environmental impact of both remote and office work is the integration of renewable energy sources. For offices, this involves transitioning to green energy providers, installing solar panels, or purchasing renewable energy credits. 

Similarly, remote workers can reduce their carbon footprint by choosing residential energy suppliers that offer renewable energy options or by installing solar panels at home. The shift towards renewables plays a crucial role in reducing the overall carbon emissions associated with energy consumption in both work models.

Embracing energy-efficient appliances and green technology

Energy-efficient appliances and green technology are pivotal in enhancing the sustainability of both remote and office work environments. In offices, upgrading to energy-efficient lighting, heating, and cooling systems can significantly reduce energy consumption. 

For remote workers, using energy-efficient home office equipment, such as ENERGY STAR-rated computers and monitors, and adopting smart home technologies for efficient energy use can contribute to a lower environmental impact.

Impact of individual behavior and lifestyle choices

Individual behavior and lifestyle choices are key factors in determining the environmental impact of work models. Simple actions, such as reducing paper usage, recycling, and minimizing waste, can have a substantial cumulative effect. 

For remote workers, conscious decisions about heating and cooling usage, taking breaks to reduce screen time, and avoiding unnecessary printing can contribute to sustainability.

Effective company policies and sustainability initiatives

Companies can play a significant role in promoting environmental sustainability by implementing green policies and initiatives. This could include offering incentives for using public transportation or carpooling, facilitating recycling and waste reduction programs in the office, and supporting remote workers with resources to create eco-friendly home offices. Encouraging digital communication to reduce paper usage and investing in sustainable office supplies are other ways companies can contribute. By adopting such policies, companies not only reduce their environmental footprint but also set a precedent for responsible and sustainable business practices.

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Future of work: Sustainability trends

The future of work is likely to be increasingly shaped by a commitment to sustainability, influenced by both societal values and environmental necessity. In remote work, a growing trend is the emphasis on creating eco-friendly home office environments, from using sustainable materials for office furniture to adopting energy-efficient office equipment. 

For office work, trends point towards green building designs that emphasize natural lighting, energy-efficient systems, and sustainable materials, along with layouts that promote health and reduce waste.

Technological and infrastructure developments

Advancements in technology will play a critical role in shaping sustainable work practices. Innovations in renewable energy technologies, such as more efficient solar panels and battery storage systems, could make green energy more accessible for both home and office environments. The rise of smart buildings equipped with IoT devices can optimize energy use and reduce waste in office spaces. 

For remote workers, developments in cloud computing and virtual collaboration tools will continue to minimize the need for physical travel, thereby reducing carbon emissions.

Environmental considerations steering work dynamics

Environmental concerns are predicted to become a central factor in determining work practices. Companies will increasingly adopt carbon footprint as a key performance indicator, influencing decisions from workplace design to employee work models. The adoption of policies promoting environmental responsibility, such as supporting public transit use, encouraging telecommuting, and implementing robust recycling programs, will become commonplace. Additionally, there could be a rise in certifications and standards for environmentally sustainable workplaces, driving companies to adopt greener practices to meet these benchmarks.

man giving a presentation

Round up

Remote work emerges as the greener option in sustainable work models, mainly due to the substantial reduction in commuting-related emissions. However, increased energy consumption at home and lifestyle changes can partially counterbalance this advantage. 

In-office working on the other hand, while undoubtedly responsible for a larger carbon footprint, is becoming increasingly sustainable. Businesses and commercial buildings are increasingly adopting eco-friendly practices, such as using renewable energy, which enhances the environmental sustainability of office work. Public transport is also becoming greener and more accessible, helping reduce the carbon footprint of office workers. 

The hybrid model of working can be a good compromise for companies not fully ready for remote work. By working from home a few days each week, employees can still achieve significant carbon savings, combining the benefits of both remote and office settings while contributing positively to environmental sustainability.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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