There can be a tendency amongst remote working companies (or those with hybrid policies) to assume that because their employees work from home, that their carbon footprint is really low, meaning they don’t really need to consider calculating their carbon emissions or taking steps to cut down on their carbon footprint. However, this is actually not true, and remote working companies are often surprised to learn that their carbon footprint can be quite significant.
👉 In this article we’ll explore the different ways that remote working results in carbon emissions and why it’s important for companies to calculate their carbon footprint.
The remote working trend
The Covid-19 pandemic left no choice but for companies to take part in the largest ‘remote working experiment’ in history. There was already a growing trend towards remote working, however many companies were still reluctant to offer fully flexible home working - citing concerns over communication and team relationships, which many believed would suffer without in-person interaction.
The pandemic accelerated this movement, with almost half of all employees working full-time at its height. And much to the surprise of both companies and managers alike - remote working wasn’t actually as terrible as they’d imagined. In fact, remote working actually brings with it a host of different benefits: employers are able to hire from all over the world, which increases their talent pool; employees are actively seeking out roles with remote opportunities which means that by adopting a remote working policy, employers can better retain talent and attract new talent; significant cost savings can be made by avoiding (of cutting down on the size of) office space and office equipment… the list goes on.
It seems therefore, that the ‘remote working experiment’ was actually a success for many companies. In fact, research shows that 91% of people who were able to work from home during the pandemic would like for their remote or hybrid work to continue. And many employers listened - almost half of employees have continued to work from home post-pandemic.
This means that a significant percentage of the employment workforce now work remotely - in the US for example, 26% of employees worked remotely in 2022. And these figures are only expected to grow.
With a growing percentage of the workforce working from home, this begs the question - what’s the environmental impact of remote working, and is it better for the environment?
Is remote working better for the environment?
Common sense would suggest that without the commute to work and without the need to heat and provide energy to an office building, that remote work should reduce the carbon footprint of a company. But post-pandemic research doesn’t necessarily reflect such a clear-cut win for the environment.
In fact, whether or not remote working brings environmental benefits and cuts down on a company's carbon emissions very much depends on the behaviors of individual employees. Let’s take a closer look at what particular behaviors have the biggest impact:
A remote working policy means that companies can avoid the need to heat and run an office building or office space - which can ultimately be hugely beneficial for the environment. However, this benefit can be negated through the at-home behaviors of employees. Employees working from home will still need energy to run their own office environment - they’ll need light and heat, and electricity to power their laptops or computer (or whatever equipment they need to work).
Therefore, the carbon footprint of an individual employee who works from home will vary hugely depending on a number of individual characteristics, for example: their environmental awareness and individual efforts to reduce their carbon footprint; their size of home, energy rating and energy supplier; the weather and environment. The resulting carbon footprint can be quite significant, and this may be multiplied many times over depending on the number of employees. It’s not necessarily a given therefore that allowing employees to work from home will result in lower carbon emissions.
Remote working can completely eliminate an employee's commute to work every day - which is great news for the environment. In the US for example, transportation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and personal car use accounts for over half of this! Not only this, but 90% of people in the US drive to work (usually alone), which adds up to around 30% of their annual driving. Therefore, cutting out the need to drive to and from work can significantly cut down on emissions.
However, the situation isn’t always so clear cut. Despite a remote working environment, many employees still need to travel for meetings or conferences. And thanks to the remote working policy, they often have the flexibility to live wherever they want, which means that employees are more likely to be widely dispersed geographically, necessitating longer journeys or even air travel.
A lot of remote companies also employ people from all over the world - therefore, company retreats and get-togethers can be costly in terms of the carbon footprint.
Remote working doesn’t avoid the need to use technology - in fact without the ability to have in-person conversations, remote working can actually increase a company’s carbon footprint when it comes to technology. Not only this, but remote or hybrid policies don’t avoid the energy consumption produced by web servers and cloud usage.
To put this into context, research shows that the average business employee produces around 135 KG worth of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) just from sending emails over the period of the year. This is, rather shockingly, the equivalent of driving 320 KM in a car. Increased levels of remote and hybrid working will only push these numbers higher.
Individuals will still be producing waste whether they’re working in an office, or from home. This comes from the products that employees consume during working hours - the packaging that the salad they had for lunch came in, the coffee cup that they picked up from their local coffee shop… etc.
Research does show however, that at-home working reduces the amount of waste produced by an employee - they have less need to buy take-away items and are more effectively able to recycle at home. However, not all waste is eliminated and waste from electronic and electrical waste may actually increase with remote or hybrid working.
As you can see, the environmental case for working from home is not quite so clear cut, and an employee's carbon footprint can still be significant. This is why it’s important for companies who operate a remote working policy to also consider their carbon footprint and to take steps to reduce it.
What about hybrid working?
Many companies are opting to adopt hybrid working models, which means that employees can both work from home and from the office - balancing their time between the two. While some might assume that this would bring with it environmental benefits, the reverse may actually be true.
The hybrid model means that both offices and homes will be consuming energy to support employees as they carry out their work, and some experts even believe this may even create a higher-carbon workforce.
Even where companies downsize their office spaces, the environmental benefit is partially outweighed by the effects of the downsizing. For example, downsizing often results in waste products such as excess furniture and equipment, some of which will undoubtedly end up in landfills.
The need to calculate your carbon footprint
The environmental impact of working from home is a lot more nuanced than it first seems. Many believe that remote or hybrid working policies equate to a lower carbon footprint, even negating the need to calculate emissions, however, this is not true.
While it’s true that there are some environmental benefits to remote working - employees tend to produce less waste, and cutting out commuting (especially where this is by car) can be very beneficial for the environment. However, working from home can actually be more carbon intensive - especially where employees live in energy inefficient homes or rely on fossil fuels for their energy supply. Hybrid working can be even worse for the environment with energy consumption increased through the utilization of both office space and homes. This is why remote working or hybrid companies aren’t off the hook when it comes to their carbon footprint.
Global warming is one of the biggest threats to mankind, and it will take the concerted effort of every government, individual and company - no matter how big or small - if we’re going to be able to prevent further climate decline and mitigate the worst effects. Each one of us needs to make efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and transition to net zero emissions.
How to reduce your carbon footprint
The first step in reducing your carbon footprint is to work out what it actually is. Once a company knows the most carbon emitting activities it takes part in, it can take effective action to remedy it.
A business's carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gasses that it produces, measured in tons of emitted carbon dioxide (CO2). Measuring a company’s carbon footprint is approached best when you break down your emissions into three different categories: scope emissions 1, 2, and 3 - read more about this in our article on the topic.
Given the complexity of sourcing and calculating all the different sources of carbon emissions, it can be hard to do this in-house. Many companies choose to hire a third party to carefully break down their scope emissions. Companies such as Greenly follow a methodical process by first analyzing data from a single year, preferably to the most recent calendar year with the most accurate and up-to-date information.
Activity data, otherwise known as activities being conducted in scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 will be collected from the company and other suppliers. Then the third-party company will calculate the emissions from each activity by multiplying the collected data by various emission factors.
Once a company’s carbon footprint has been established, it’s then much easier to know what steps to take to reduce these emissions. Companies such as Greenly can also help businesses to come up with effective strategies to reduce their environmental footprint, to measure and track their progress, and to communicate the great results!
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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