There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed some things about our work lives. Out of seemingly nowhere, companies that were extremely resistant to teleworking suddenly had a fully remote workforce. For some employees, this was a dream come true while for others it was a bit more of a social collapse.
As many businesses start to fully reopen, some are taking stock of how the past year of predominantly remote work went. Their assessments include evaluating whether or not production was greatly impacted, how employees handled the transition and the long-term sustainability of such a move. For some, transitioning to a mostly telework or hybrid model is quickly becoming a reality.
As this great change in the workforce starts taking place around the country, it can be expected that environmental emissions will start to shift. For many companies, this can seem like a great thing. There will be fewer operating expenses and less energy use in office spaces; there will be less commuting, which would result in fewer emissions from that perspective as well.
However, though many of the environmental negatives are anticipated to be reduced, not all of them will be. Depending upon the specific employee, individual emissions may well increase substantially. There are certainly hidden environmental negatives to a remote employee.
Work from Anywhere
Easily one of the biggest perks for working from home is the idea that home can be anywhere. It can be an apartment in the busy city, a parent’s kitchen table during the holidays, or a sweet bungalow next to the beach in a foreign county. You can, essentially, work anywhere. You just have to be sure to do your research about the location you want to move to; this is one of the keys to moving when you work remotely.
Moving out into the suburbs or the country can be a very real mental health and quality of life improvement for some people. However, there is plenty of research out there suggesting that these areas are far less sustainable and ultimately produce more greenhouse gases per capita than city homes. It can be easy for a company to reduce its emissions by sending employees home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean employees will produce less.
The idea of working from anywhere can have other, even more environmentally concerning, dimensions as well. For instance, some people take ‘work from anywhere’ very literally and begin their life as a nomad traveling from place to place, experiencing the best of the world while still earning a paycheck. Certainly, this is a great life, but regular airline travel is especially environmentally detrimental.
Work from the Comfort of Home
Of course, the vast majority of employees are likely to stay put in their homes and enjoy the glory of waking up and working in their pajamas every day, right?
Sure. Working from home without the pressures of getting ready for work and having to physically be at the office is one of the major perks. Many employees love that they can use their breaks to take care of small tasks around the house or hang out with their pets all day.
But even though the office won’t be using as much energy or producing as much waste, every individual home will see an uptick. Especially during summer and winter months in places where cooling and heating homes is necessary, usage is expected to increase. Not only is this not great for the environment, but it also isn’t that fantastic for employee’s wallets.
This has become a real issue for some people who have realized that they are not only spending more on energy, but also on ordering home goods and food that they may not have otherwise had to purchase. Suggestions for how to cut back on these things include taking steps such as:
- Heating the home just a bit less and dressing warmer
- Turning off all unnecessary electronics and lights
- Avoiding ordering products online
- Striving to limit junk food and cook healthy meals
- Using alternatives to supplies like toilet paper
Only Work In-Person When Necessary
Another major benefit of working from home is the idea that employees will only have to be in person for certain events or meetings. Nearly everything can be accomplished online without a physical presence so employees won’t have to spend nearly as much time, money, or energy traveling. You could even save money and time by using online resources to learn to do DIY car repairs and maintenance. Not only do you save money by not taking your car to a shop, you save time by learning online.
If employees are scattered all across the country working remotely, when they do have to fly to an in-person meeting their carbon footprint is likely to far exceed what it would be if they commuted most days. As previously mentioned, air travel is exceptionally taxing on carbon emissions and one or two flights per year can quickly surpass the carbon emissions produced by driving a short distance regularly.
There are plenty of real benefits to teleworking for both employees and businesses. However, touting telework as an environmentally sound solution may not be all that it is cracked up to be. It is certainly possible to greatly reduce the environmental impact of an office by promoting remote work, but employers can’t control the potential increases in carbon footprints that some employees are bound to experience. The environmental benefits are something that should be weighed carefully.