What's the impact of remote work on the environment?

It's the sustainable solution.

Woman sitting under tree while typing on a laptop

When it comes to long-term sustainability, remote work is one of the best solutions–not only for humans, but also for Mother Earth.

Increased productivity, job satisfaction, and employee retention are just a select few benefits of working from home for employees. Employers also gain as they no longer invest in office energy consumption, space, or supplies. Likewise, remote work reduces carbon emissions and air pollution. 

Nevertheless, there are ways companies can improve their strategy to take their remote working to the next level, further helping the environment in the process.

Follow along with us as we reveal the impacts of remote work on the environment so you can make the right choices toward long-term sustainability for all.

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Remote working reduces greenhouse gas emissions

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2019, transportation was the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

While working remotely can reduce the amount of gases released into the atmosphere, a variety of factors play into the extent to which it helps, such as whether people use public or private transportation, how far they travel, and their commercial and residential electricity use patterns.

For example, remote work may reduce greenhouse gas emissions when it replaces commuting by car. Yet, if the employee works in an area that requires electricity from nonrenewable energy sources, such as coal-fueled power plants, these benefits could be neutralized. 

Here’s an example comparing the heavily populated cities Chicago and Los Angeles in the U.S.

Chicago is a city in which 47% of commuters drive alone, which would make us assume working remotely in this city is better. However, the area has a higher reliance on fossil fuels, home heating, and air conditioning. So, working from home isn’t as beneficial as you might think. 

On the other hand, about 70% of people who work in Los Angeles commute alone. Nevertheless, because California uses relatively clean electricity, and its comfortable climate allows for reduced use of home heating and air conditioning, working remotely is healthier for the environment.

In short, in cities with relatively clean electricity and long car commutes, remote working could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Remote work can reduce greenhouse gas emissions graphics

Working remotely can also improve air quality

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills around seven million people worldwide every year

When the world locked down in April 2020, not only did major cities see a drop in rush-hour congestion of up to 95%, but there were also widespread declines in air pollution from road traffic.

Basically, fewer people commuting to work equates to less air pollution.

One of the cities with the most drastic improvement in air quality was New Delhi in India. The average levels of nitrogen dioxide were around two-thirds lower during lockdown compared with the weeks leading up to it. 

Remote work contributes to Scope 3 emissions

Remote work contributes to Scope 3 emissions graphic

Yes, those working from home are making substantial strides in reducing their environmental impact. But it’s important to remember that remote companies do have a footprint, especially through what’s called Scope 3 emissions.

Scope 3 emissions are the “result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain.” They can include office supply purchases, leased assets, business travel, waste, and more. 

Since COVID-19, Scope 3 emissions have increased tremendously as companies are providing home-office funds to their employees. Emissions to ship those supplies to each individual worker’s home adds up, and they could potentially be greater than shipping one larger box to a main office.

So, fully distributed companies should do what they can to equalize some of this environmental impact. Some have already stepped up to the plate, such as Zapier. 

Zapier is one of the first fully remote companies to purchase carbon offsets to compensate for their footprint. In 2019 alone, the company offset 647 tons of carbon through reforestation.

The time of year affects environmental impact of remote work

New research suggests that the season can have a substantial effect on the environmental impact of remote work. 

The London-based consulting firm WSP UK conducted a study including 200 employees to see how adapting work style through different seasons can lower our carbon footprint.

Researchers found that the impact of remote work on the environment is higher during winter months because of the energy it takes to heat individual workers’ offices versus a communal office building. 

Whereas, in the summer months, remote workers cut out their carbon emissions from their commute. This would otherwise be greater than their home’s energy consumption.

(Office working in the winter and home working in the summer can effectively lower carbon footprint.) 

The impact of remote work depends on location

No two sides of the globe are equal when it comes to energy consumption patterns.

For example, back in 2019, more than 40% of vehicles sold in Norway were electric, up from just over 30% in 2018. So, the impact of commuting in the Nordic countries is far lower than the U.S., UK, and other parts of the world that are more dependent on petrol.

Moreover, many major cities that consume substantial energy traditionally relied on public transportation instead of cars for commuting. (Although, this is changing as the pandemic is causing a shift away from public transport due to perceived health risks.)

Plus, the kind of energy used in your region is also a deciding factor in your footprint as a remote worker. 

For instance, the United States uses a mix of energy sources, with petroleum and natural gas consumed the most. Whereas, almost 100% of electricity in Iceland comes from renewable energy, specifically geothermal. 

Each of these geographic factors can determine a remote worker’s impact on the environment.

Concluding thoughts

If long-term sustainability is our goal, then we need to consider the impact of remote working on our environment, taking into account the numerous factors that ultimately determine our footprints. 

We encourage you to get creative and find a happy medium, a solution that benefits our earth and your remote team alike. Perhaps this means incentivizing employees to use co-working spaces (when it’s safe to do so) or blocking off days of the week in which the office is closed to everyone (no office energy consumed).

Because at the end of the day, it’s everyone’s homework to leave this world better than we found it by offsetting our carbon footprints. 

Starting with you. Starting with us. Starting today. 

In case you haven’t heard, we’re entering the dawn of the distributed age–organizational disruption on a global scale. Are you prepared for it?

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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