Unsurprisingly, I miss a lot about pre-COVID times. One thing I don’t miss, however, is rushing to the bustling Manhattan corner of 15th and Third for the 7:33am bus to New Jersey, working the entire day inside an office building, and then heading home yet sitting in standstill traffic on the GW Bridge, all while attempting to avoid car-sickness. I can’t help how whiny this may sound, but commuting left me little flexibility to squeeze in a short workout without being half-asleep, take time to walk my dog outside, or run a quick errand at a store that closes at 6pm.
Frankly, I have loved the flexibility of doing everything when I wanted, whether that’s working out in the middle of the afternoon or applying for an accelerator program at 10pm when I often have the most energy. Now that life is moving forward beyond the pandemic (thank goodness), many companies are thinking through how they’re going to move forward as a cohesive company.
While there are numerous factors at play, one that most are balancing is the environmental impact of being remote versus being together in an office. It seems simple, right? What’s more sustainable than eliminating a round-trip commute and a building’s energy consumption? As with everything, though, it’s a little more complicated. Here are three considerations that executives should be thinking about when evaluating a possible return to office life.
The Heat Is On
One study from the UK found that the environmental impact of remote work was actually higher due to heating individual workers’ homes versus one office building. In the US, it’s likely that the individual energy consumption is also higher than a collective, efficient system operating the entire building. Alternatively, if individuals aren’t turning off their heat or air conditioning at home while they’re at the office, those benefits disappear. In Jamaica, a worker would be cooling her home office using exclusively fossil fuels. In New Zealand, the lovely climate likely wouldn’t require any heating or cooling, but even if it did, it would likely be powered by renewable energy.
To Commute or Not To Commute
The environmental impact from commuting and business travel depends heavily on where one lives in the world. In Norway, more than 40% of vehicles sold in 2019 were electric, so the impact of these commutes is far lower than other parts of the world that rely heavily on fossil fuels (yes, even with the electric cars’ impact when charging). Pre-pandemic in New York City, 8 million people – that’s 50% of the city’s population – use a network of subways, buses, and railways, every day, so the individual transportation footprint is minimal. On the other hand, an average one-way commute by car in the US is 27.6 minutes, emitting 247 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. But how about the ripple effects of remote working? People may choose to live outside urban centers if they no longer need to commute to an office, but then decide to buy a car and drive further to do other activities, reversing the advantages of no longer commuting for work. Similarly, what happens if an employee working from home is now able to take his daughter to school instead of her riding on a school bus? There are countless scenarios where people eliminating their commutes could have rebound effects.
The Best of Both Worlds
One obvious solution would be a hybrid model where people can take advantage of both an office environment and home convenience. This option is best from an environmental standpoint only if employees are given designated days to come into the office. If an office decides to stay open five or seven days a week and employees are encouraged to come when they want, we’re not gaining any efficiencies by working from home. Alternatively, if an office decides to close on Mondays and Fridays, for example, the office can save large amounts of energy, water, food, and other resources.
Don’t Waste Your Energy
While reducing the use of office buildings sounds like a huge win, there’s potential dispersed and increased energy use across employees around the world. A recent study by IOPscience reviewed dozens of studies about the climate impacts of teleworking: 68% of them suggested working from home reduces energy usage, whereas 21% found that it could have the same impact or even increase usage. One real consideration is whether your company can go fully remote and ditch the office entirely. At my own company, for example, we plan to continue working from home and hosting a quarterly one-week retreat in which the entire team can reap the benefits of actual facetime (while offsetting any air travel). As we all navigate the future of work, there are no clear answers and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Undeniably, though, the moment calls for reflection from corporate leadership to consider environmental impacts — for better or for worse.
Written by Lizzie Horvitz.
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