Sustainability: Is working from home really greener?

The past 18 months have seen a revolution in flexible working. Forced by the pandemic, organisations are now considering their long-term positions on remote working. Are there potential gains of permanent homeworking to the planet?

Glass world globe set on plants with a forest background


Is working from home greener? We take a look at how the different aspects of working at home might affect sustainability.

Does working from home reduce CO2?

It’s well recognised that lockdowns across the globe, designed to limit the spread of Covid-19, helped reduce both air pollution and CO2 emissions.

The average person’s commute and business travel generates about 1000kg of CO2 per year. The UK’s Department for Transport reported that car travel reduced by approximately 60% in 2020 due to the pandemic. Bus travel reduced by nearly 90%, and train travel dropped almost 100% below normal levels.

Naturally these statistics lead people to conclude that working from home is more environmentally sustainable. But is it really that straightforward?

Less travel, but higher energy use

We need to remember that the pandemic was a unique and unprecedented situation. While the immediate assumption is that closed offices and empty roads are better for the environment, detailed studies have not found clear results to back this up.

In fact, research from The University of Sussex research found that when they included non-work travel or office and home energy use, the energy savings were limited – and that part-time working from home could in fact lead to an overall increase in energy use.

Greener office buildings?

A complicating factor is that some office buildings are environmentally friendly, while others are not.
It’s common for buildings to be heated and lit around the clock – while more environmentally conscious work locations adapt to levels of occupancy through intelligent building systems.

Equally, people working at home can often use minimal energy. A further consideration is whether working from home means fewer cars driving to and from school. Many homeworkers find that they are able to walk their children to school or cycle with them rather than drive.

A converse point of view is that long term working from home may encourage people to leave cities for a more rural way of life – which means more driving, rather than less.

How sustainable is hybrid working?

A large number of organisations have announced new, hybrid working models, allowing people to split their time working in the office with working at home. But some experts theorise that this is potentially the worst solution for the environment.

Again this working structure could encourage people to move out of city centre locations – ultimately meaning longer commutes when they do visit the workplace.

There will be minimal environmental gains if companies maintain their existing facilities while allowing people to work from home. The cost of heating and lighting a half-empty building makes little environmental or economic sense.

Meanwhile, hordes of employees working from home, each with multiple monitors, individual printers, lighting and heating could have a cumulative effect on energy demand.

Downsizing offices as a greener option

Downsizing is a potential solution to this challenge. Smaller offices that are better organised around flexible working, hotdesking and meeting spaces appear to solve many of the issues.

Companies need to ensure that they find sustainable ways of disposing of unwanted furniture and equipment, however.

Reducing the environmental impact of working from home

Responsible organisations will also need to support employees to improve the sustainability of their homeworking set-up.

An important element is to ensure that people have a functional space in which to work, that makes use of natural light and reduces the need for round-the-clock heating.

Companies need to ensure that any equipment supplied for employees to use at home is energy efficient, and individuals may need to explore alternative energy suppliers to ensure they are using renewable electricity as much as possible.

Learning from the pandemic

While the environmental gains of working from home are still somewhat unclear, we have all benefited from the opportunity to understand the positives and negatives of working from home.

There are clearly green advantages of videoconferencing as a replacement for travel, and energy savings in operating large buildings. But there are also important benefits to employee wellbeing and work life balance to consider in planning a long term strategy that works on every level.

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