Working from home: is it really better for the environment?
Mary Bright | August 16, 2021
Time to read: 6 minutes
The future of the workplace has come into focus as social restrictions have started to lift in the UK and many other countries.
In future, more companies are expected to combine office-based working with working from home (WFH). This will mean millions of people continuing to adopt flexible working practices.
Employee behaviour can have major environmental impacts, especially when aggregated across organisations, cities and nations. And WFH influences how we travel, our technology use, the waste we generate, and the energy, food and water we consume.
Yet it remains largely unclear whether increased WFH positively affects employees’ environmental footprint.
On the one hand, organisations can help employees to reduce the environmental impact of WFH by reducing the need for high-carbon activities, such as business travel by air and commuting to work by car.
However, these benefits may be offset by increased use of consumer electronics, such as laptops, higher home energy consumption, and even increased non-work travel.
While WFH, fewer of employees’ sustainability impacts will take place under employers’ roofs, but they are still occurring on employers’ watch. The good news, however, is that employers can do a lot to promote sustainable behaviours among their employees.
In practice, it is often best for employers to focus on helping to change one employee behaviour at a time. Below are five behavioural domains that are central to the sustainability of WFH, and which employers can influence.
- Technology – electronic devices and internet use
- Utilities – water and energy
- Food – consumption
- Waste – food waste and recycling
- Travel – for commute and business
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
Organisations should try to consider the environmental impact of digital devices and platforms, as well as employees’ work hours.
The carbon footprint of our gadgets, our use of the internet and the systems supporting them, account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to recent estimates. This is the equivalent of the amount produced by the airline industry globally.
WFH restricts access to consumer electronics provided in the office, leading many consumers and companies to procure more consumer electronics. Global PC shipments grew 10.7% in the fourth quarter of 2020, reversing consumer trends to a phone-first focus, according to new estimates from Gartner.
Even the footprint of employee emails can be significant – from 0.3 grams CO2e for a spam email, to 50 grams CO2e for one with a photo or hefty attachment.
Similarly, a Google search can account for around between 0.2 to 7 grams of CO2e emissions; 7 grams is equivalent to driving a car for 52 feet. A “typical business” user – albeit in the pre-COVID-19 period – creates 298 pounds of CO2e from sending emails every year. This is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car.
A surge in screen time of over 40% of the waking day occurred during the first lockdown among UK adults, found telecom industry watchdog Ofcom. If we keep streaming and videoconferencing at current rates, our carbon footprint from streaming and video chatting alone could grow by as much as 34.3 million tons of CO2e by the end of 2021.
It would take a 71,600-square-mile swath of forest – an area about 75% of the UK’s landmass – to remove all that out of the atmosphere. The additional water – commonly used for cooling data centres – needed to process and transmit this data could fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
There are several low-cost ways to increase sustainable practices relating to consumer electronics. These include more efficient product use and moderating the time spent engaging with the products.
Defaults (that is, a pre-selected choice option) can positively influence behaviours. For example, pre-programming electronic devices to eco-mode or switching them to standby, “sleep mode”, or “hibernate” at a pre-specified time (for example, after two hours), can help to save energy and cut costs on utility bills, alongside lower emissions.
To reduce screen time, it is also useful to utilise cost-effective and easily available tools like reminders and feedback about screen time-use to help people to monitor their screen time and device use.
Total electricity demand reduced 15–20% during the initial months of the pandemic, due to shrinking industrial economic activity. But 55% of people felt their domestic energy consumption had increased compared to the year before, according to an Ofgem survey.
Households where people WFH will use 25% more electricity and 17% more gas per day, estimated USwitch. Assuming an average employee heats just their home workspace for an extra four hours a day, their estimated costs will be an extra 396 pounds CO2e.
Employers could provide employees with opportunities to consider switching their energy provider – for example, through collaborations with online platforms like USwitch – where the default option is a clean energy provider.
Using green defaults also increases broader sustainable energy behaviours – such as setting room temperature, using more efficient electric appliances, and even switching to cost-savings and emissions-reducing tariff schemes.
The global food system is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to recent estimates.
In many Western countries, the overconsumption of meat contributes to environmental issues. Typically, meat is significantly more resource-intensive and environmentally impactful than plant-based foods. It is estimated that a global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds.
With meat being associated with comfort eating, there may be increased demand for meat when employees are stressed and/or overworked (such as at the end of a long week of high screen time).
Additionally, employers’ inability to raise awareness of the benefits of limiting meat consumption – through on-site initiatives, such as meatless Mondays – may undermine the salience of these benefits in some people’s minds.
Goal-setting around reduced meat consumption could be carried out as part of cook-along activities. Or in follow-up communications, where people could be encouraged to go meatless one day a week.
Employers could also combine sustainability behaviour change strategies with exercises to build team spirit and enhance collaboration in a WFH context. For instance, culinary interventions – such as cooking classes – could positively impact dietary health. Interactive cooking classes appear more effective than cooking demonstrations.
UK households are estimated to waste 4.5 million tonnes of food each year. The environmental benefits of eliminating household food waste have been compared to taking one in every four cars in the UK off the roads.
Eating patterns at home are probably more stable than when eating out or at the office. This may allow for the more accurate provision of food, so increased WFH could facilitate an overall reduction in food waste.
Food planning behaviours have been identified as particularly helpful for reducing waste. These behaviours include everything from writing a shopping list, compiling meal plans through to checking inventories before shopping.
Managing leftovers could also play an important role in preventing food waste. Employers could encourage employees to use leftovers and unused food rather than throwing it away, for example through communications containing recipes that repurpose leftovers. Such communication could be particularly effective if they come from appropriate messengers, such as food bloggers, dieticians or chefs.
5. Work Travel
Commuting by car and business travel are two of the key employee travel behaviours that will likely change under WFH. Corporate travel alone accounted for about half of a typical company’s carbon footprint, according to a 2018 report.
Although by some estimates WFH can lead to reduced automobile use, there may be rebound effects including increased non-work travel or more short trips.
While the rate of driving declined from 31% to 27% during the pandemic, the total number of trips people made when WFH increased from 3.97 to 4.45.
Work Travel Interventions
Converting one-off in-person meetings to virtual meetings reduces emissions from business-related international air travel. When these trips are unavoidable, an opt-out default could aid carbon offsetting.
Leveraging social norms in behavioural interventions could also help. Organisations could introduce social norms around desired levels of carbon footprint. For example, they could make employees aware before booking a business trip of what that trip means in terms of their carbon footprint, and how that compares to their colleagues.
Organisations could also encourage or reward employees who keep track of their carbon footprint, or even aim to offset as much as possible.
Taking Effective Action
Thoughtful design and robust evaluation of any interventions are vital for any organisation when addressing sustainability issues.
Robust evaluation provides evidence of the effectiveness, or not, of intervention strategies. It also allows companies to monitor the indirect behavioural and wellbeing consequences, as well as any positive or negative spill-over effects of the intervention.
Of course, all workforces are distinct and the key contributors to employees’ footprints will vary substantially across companies.
And any intervention that targets a specific behaviour is likely to have indirect consequences. These spill-overs can result in changes to related behaviours and/or employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.
Such spill-overs can also promote or impede an organisation’s ESG performance. For example, a commonly cited issue is the rebound effect – that is, when an investment in an energy efficient technology leads to greater use and undoes some, or all, of the efficiency gains.
On the other hand, employers’ promotion of sustainability goals can boost employee engagement in pro-environmental actions in their personal life, along with productivity and job satisfaction.
During the remainder of 2021, many companies will wrestle with the question of how their workforce should be organised and located going forward. This question creates many opportunities for new ways of working, but it may also pose challenges, including around sustainability.
Companies that tackle this issue proactively, however, can ensure they are set-up for a productive and sustainable future.
This article is based on an independent report, Working From Home: The Sustainability Question – produced by MoreThanNow, the behavioural science practice, with the support of Standard Life, part of the Phoenix Group, and BT.
Click here to read the full report.