Remote and hybrid work environments have become increasingly common in the past 18 months. There have been downsides for businesses and employees. For example, IT teams are trying to manage cybersecurity in a remote work world. For employees, while they might like the freedom and flexibility of working remotely, there may be a sense of isolation or a lack of connection with corporate culture they don’t like as much.
Even with these downsides, there are plenty of benefits too. Some of these are environmental. We’ve seen more remote and hybrid work does help reduce detrimental environmental effects that come with traditional work, but are there downsides to this as well?
Below, we explore the environmental impacts of remote work in detail:
1. Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions
One reason that initially so many environmentalists were on board with remote work is that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from commutes. When you work from home, it reduces gas emissions from vehicles or public transport. Fewer commuters across the board tend to mean less greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Global Workforce Analytics, if who everyone worked in an office originally were to work from home for only half the week, it would reduce emissions by 54 million tons a year.
Current remote workers before the pandemic avoided the emission of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. With this also comes a reduced demand and consumption of fossil fuels.
Reduced GHG emissions and consumption of fossil fuels can then help reduce air pollution and improve air quality. Air quality contributes to many respiratory illnesses, including infections and asthma.
2. Less Paper Usage
Even without the push for remote work due to the pandemic, more and more businesses and office environments were moving toward a paperless model.
This is environmentally friendly not just because there’s less consumption of the paper itself but also other supplies related to paper, such as printer ink.
The benefits from a business perspective include fewer overhead expenses, more efficiency and productivity, and a more digitized work environment that’s secure.
3. Reduced Consumption of Plastic
A lot of the things people typically do during a workday have a significant environmental impact, yet we often don’t consider them in our day-to-day thinking.
For example, when you’re working in a traditional office setting, you may be using a lot more plastic than you do at home.
If you pack your lunch or buy lunch, you’re probably using plastic utensils, cups and more.
It creates a lot of waste, whereas if you’re working at home, you’re probably using your own coffee pot and mugs, and dishware. You’re likely preparing more of your meals, cutting down on packaging.
The world is in the midst of a plastic crisis, so this is especially critical.
4. Cutting Down on Energy Consumption
Most offices utilize more energy than their employees would working from home. There are computers constantly on, as well as massive printing stations. The lights in an office are probably always flipped on, and it’s not common for employees to turn things off when they leave a room. There could still be people in the room, or they might not be as conscious as they are when they’re in their own home and responsible for paying the utility bill.
Heating and cooling a large office is always expensive. Reports show that energy consumption in office spaces is almost twice as high as when people work from home.
5. Migration Away from Urban Areas
We saw a striking move during the pandemic of people away from major urban areas to suburban or even rural places. They were no longer tied to cities for work and could do their jobs from anywhere. That has a positive benefit on the environment, by reducing the harmful congestion in cities.
It’s better for people to spread out, rather than being concentrated in a few areas that can bear the brunt of the effects.
Are There Also Negative Impacts of More Remote Work?
While the benefits of remote work can be significant from an environmental perspective, are there potential downsides too?
One example is that employers may be less likely to support green and renewable energy initiatives. When their employees aren’t working in the office, they don’t have to think about costs and how that might affect them.
It’s also possible that because people are dispersed and can work from anywhere that they might have to fly or travel long distances when they do go into the office or have meetings. That’s not good from an environmental perspective.
With those things being said, the benefits environmentally and on renewable energy efforts of remote work do seem to be greater than the downsides.