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01 April 2020

Working from home... what environmental implications?

by Alice Pellé
 

The Covid-19 outbreak has forced most of the world population to leave their offices when possible and complete their work online, from home.

Working from home usually means no public transportation, no car ride, no huge office buildings heated or cooled for its employees, a rather sustainable alternative, you might think. The questions around the climate impact of working from home has undoubtedly grown in importance with the advent of the pandemic but was nonetheless a matter of questioning before Covid-19. Recent study shows that almost half of employees say they occasionally work from home. As the world is slowing down, we have seen a fair number of articles displaying, for instance, a clear reduction in carbon emissions in China or the reduction of electricity demand in Europe.  

The sudden fall in employees’ mobility and activity overall is certainly not entirely responsible for such drastic changes but surely plays an important part in it. There is today a lack of research about the exact environmental impact of such transformations within the workplace. It is then fair to wonder, is working from home a truly sustainable solution?  

Well, it depends. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on the season. A British study recently found that working from home rather than the office in summer saves around 400kg of carbon emissions, the equivalent of 5% of a typical British commuter’s annual carbon footprint. This argument is nonetheless only valid in summer. Indeed, the study argues that if an average employee worked at home all year round, they would produce 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year – around 80% more than an office worker.  Why? Because British winters are cold and working from home would mean heating the whole house, which would then lead to higher carbon emissions than what a commute would produce. But then again, such argument also depends on the number of people working in this home, and the type of commute used to reach your place of work. Using a car to commute to work would have, for instance, a much greater impact than using a bike.  

Needless to say that if the environmental impact of working from home depends on seasonality – it also is greatly impacted by where you are in the world. If you’re in a cooled office in Bogota, then the argument of seasonality does not apply anymore. Working from home’s environmental impact actually depends on a multitude of factors. It depends on the type of building you work or live in, on how many people work or live with you in the building, but also on the energy provider of the building in question.  

And, there is the question of digital pollution. Indeed, the carbon footprint of an increased internet traffic (with more emails, more video conferences, etc...) that working from home engenders is inevitably stronger. Can we really talk about a sustainable alternative if it leads to an increased internet pollution?  

We’ve seen our world evolve so rapidly before our eyes over the past weeks. Our infrastructures will be asked to follow this evolution and to be adaptable to future energy demands as well as human connectivity and mobility. Indeed, the great increase in home office duties is raising important questions for our future legal, ethical and philosophical approach to work all over the world. This crisis will give way to a national and even global debate on working from home, on its impacts on the environment, on well-being but also on mobility at the workplace. If the practice needs to be further researched, it remains a popular choice among employees and employers. Recent government statistics indicate that half of HR managers believe working from home has no impact on the quality of work produced while 27% believe that staff work to a higher standard when at home. Will work from home become the norm in work structures of the future?  

This crisis will undoubtedly disrupt our institutions and way of life. At Longevity Partners, we will work tirelessly to make sure that the transformations ahead will be driven by values of sustainability, well-being and respect.  

At the end of the day, these problematics remind us of one thing: we need more sustainable buildings to work, sleep, dance, eat, or simply live in. Whether we work from our offices or home should not be the real focus here. Common efforts should be made to ensure that our buildings are energy-efficient and use resources in the cleverest, most responsible way.