Since the pandemic began, there’s been a great debate about whether working from home is better for the climate.
Two years later, the answer is essentially no, not really. While carbon emissions did drop precipitously in 2020 as everything shut down, they’ve since rebounded as people return to somewhat normal lives, including going to the office. But it’s likely that some employees will keep working at least a few days from their dining room table indefinitely. Now, companies are taking on the task of figuring out how to make sure hybrid work doesn’t make climate change worse.
Doing so also comes with the headache of how to calculate carbon emissions in a hybrid world.
Laura Tedeschi, who heads the U.K.-based Carbon Trust’s ICT sector’s work, said that virtually no one considered emissions originating from employees outside of the office before the pandemic. While an increasing number of companies have begun to do so, it’s a challenge. Whereas office emissions are easy to calculate with a power bill, “everything that is outside of the company’s direct control becomes hard to measure,” she said.
The climate-friendly office of the future
A year ago, most office workers were spending most of their time at home, and offices could go dark for months at a time. A Carbon Trust study from June 2021 found that remote working resulted in lower emissions in all six of the European countries it analyzed. But the move to hybrid work in light of widespread vaccinations means that things are no longer quite so simple.
“We’ve kind of been in triage mode the last two and a half years,” said Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting firm focused on flexible and distributed workplace strategies. Businesses haven’t figured out how much office space their employees actually want and need, and as a result many are running their offices as if they are operating at full capacity, keeping the lights on for a handful of people that might be coming in one or two times a week, she explained. Meanwhile, the rest of a company’s employees working at home are also keeping the lights on, running the air conditioner and otherwise doubling up on emissions.
To minimize emissions, Carbon Trust’s Tedeschi said, this can’t remain the status quo. On the office front, she said, “companies need to move to more efficient buildings that are structured in a way to have, for example, certain teams going on certain days, so that they can keep a certain level of utilization across the week.”
This could translate into a 15% to 20% reduction in office space needs, according to Lister. When businesses finally accurately estimate their office usage needs and start consolidating, that’s when the emissions savings of working from home will actually start to pay off: If full-time employees in the U.S. were to work from home half the time, “the greenhouse gas reduction would be equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce off the road,” according to a 2021 Global Workplace Analytics analysis. (An International Energy Agency report released earlier this year found hybrid work is also a great way to reduce oil dependence.)
Hybrid work will also start to make more sense once companies learn to more efficiently anticipate and respond to energy usage in the office. Some of that technology already exists, including motion-activated sensors and energy-management systems that self-adjust. Some of Lister’s clients are using robots that clean at night based on whether or not a space has been used, and there are companies that are even starting to use AI to better predict and respond to when employees are utilizing office space. A good technology-assisted system could cut energy usage by 15% to 20%, according to Sandeep Ahuja, the co-founder and CEO of cove.tool, an Atlanta-based sustainable building design startup.
For startups that might not have the cash to afford AI technology, there’s also just good old-fashioned coordination. Ahuja’s 75-person team spends two days of the week in the office together and three days working from home. Members coordinate which two days they’ll be in together, which helps both with fostering real collaboration as well as knowing which days the office can go dark, from HVAC to computer monitors.
So far, most industry analysts believe there would be a net reduction in carbon emissions if employees were to work remotely most of the time, but it can be hard to track. And it becomes harder when hybrid schedules enter the equation. Some companies are surveying their employees to see when they drive in and when they don’t, while others are relying on badge data, which Lister said is “Big Brother” territory.
But quantifying the climate benefits from a successful hybrid work model remains elusive, in part because no standard exists across companies. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol — one of the most widespread standards for calculating emissions — has historically devoted a single line in the commuting section of its guidelines suggesting that companies include teleworking.
(Tedeschi said that rumor has it, the organization is working on an update to its methodology that will include work-from-home measurement guidelines in more detail, though the Greenhouse Gas Protocol said it could not confirm as much until after the scoping process for its coming update is complete.)
So how do you make hybrid work a net positive for the climate?
Ultimately, it’s on companies to create better policies when it comes to climate-conscious hybrid work. Leyla Acaroglu, the founder of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design and the author of a 2020 report on sustainable workplaces, said things remain “very haphazard” at the moment. It’s important that corporate leaders come up with a concrete plan that optimizes for reducing emissions and ensuring a healthy working environment, she said.
For example, driving to work is one of the most carbon-intensive parts of in-office work, but some companies are experimenting with ways to encourage employees to commute smarter.
Ahuja said her company has started reimbursing employees for any travel to the office that isn’t car-based, such as public transportation or even biking. (They use an app that tracks bike mileage to calculate the cost per ride.) She told Protocol that about 50% of employees utilize the benefit.
Companies should also consider proximity to public transit options when choosing office space, Ahuja said. Cove.tool’s office, in the heart of downtown Atlanta, was specifically chosen for its walkability and accessibility to various forms of public transit.
In addition to commuting considerations, individuals are now bearing the cost of energy when working from home, and Acaroglu recommended that companies consider compensating their workers to purchase clean energy for their homes.
Major companies are already buying carbon offsets to cover the emissions from remote work. Stephen Fukuhara, VP of Workplace and Travel at Autodesk, told Protocol that commuting and remote work make up 4% of the software company’s total carbon footprint. To compensate, Autodesk purchases corresponding amounts of renewable energy and carbon offsets, and plans to continue to do so.
Meanwhile, Google also offsets home office emissions via carbon credit purchases, the company told Reuters. Its goal of operating on solely carbon-free energy by 2030, though, does not apply to remote work.
Several tech companies — including Atlassian, Autodesk and Meta — have said that move to remote and hybrid work during the pandemic decreased their overall emissions by at least 30%, as compared with pre-pandemic.
While these reductions — and those that could happen if companies stick the climate landing as they transition to hybrid work — are great, Tedeschi pointed out that the hybrid hubbub could distract from the bigger picture.
“If we look at things from an overall carbon perspective, in the total footprint of the company, usually this category of emissions is not the biggest one,” she said, pointing out that the “employee commuting” category (which is where telework lives) is usually around 1% of a company’s emissions. Manufacturing or data centers represent much bigger shares, and that’s where companies really need to be focusing if they’re serious about reducing emissions.