Working from home might be worse for the environment than commuting

Experts say working from home shifted energy use but did not significantly reduce it. Companies are taking this into consideration as they make plans for returning to the office.

An Android statue wearing a mask on Google's campus

Some tech workers are commuting back to the office. Some are wondering about the environmental impact.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Tech workers are heading back to the office and so are their carbon footprints, but the negative environmental impact won't be as large as some think. Experts found the increase in people working from home during the pandemic shifted environmental woes in the U.S. Some tech companies are taking this into account as they plan their return to the office.

The pandemic transferred the demand and responsibility for resources from commercial markets to the consumer. Much like the demand for consumer goods like toilet paper and coveted grocery items, the amount of electricity and natural gas used by consumers went up as they spent more time at home.

In a white paper about the shift in energy consumption during the pandemic, Steve Cicala, an associate professor of economics at Tufts University who studies environmental and energy policy, wrote that in 2020, about a third of the U.S. workforce shifted to working from home due to the pandemic. Simultaneously, there was an almost 8% increase in residential consumption of electricity and about a 7% and 8% reduction in usage among commercial and industrial buildings, he wrote.

"It's been an increase in residential consumption at the same time that there's been a reduction in industrial and commercial consumption of both natural gas and electricity," Cicala told Protocol about the shift in energy usage.

More people are at home cooking, doing laundry, opening up their refrigerators and heating and cooling their homes. "You're preheating everybody's individual ovens in their homes instead of the cafeteria having everything on the tray," he said.

Also, as more people moved outside of city centers for more space and bigger homes they increased their carbon footprints and will likely expend more energy on longer commutes on the days that they do decide to come to the office. However, Cicala did find that gas consumption for transportation declined about 16% over the past year, bringing down overall energy consumption in the U.S.

Some Bay Area tech companies will restart their employee shuttle services immediately, while others are easing back into offering such services later in the year. Google told Protocol that it restarted its shuttle operations on July 12, the company's first day back in the office. It's starting with a reduced shuttle schedule with plans to ramp back up as more employees come back. Facebook told Protocol that it would likely start running shuttles again later this fall.

When it comes to emissions from plane travel, Cicala told Protocol that he predicts there will be dramatically less coming from business travel after the pandemic. "It's hugely costly, and the alternative has just spent the last 18 months as the universal, default way of doing business," he said.

Some companies, recognizing the shift, have taken steps to offset the difference.

Autodesk, for example, told Protocol that it has balanced its employees' at-home energy consumption by purchasing offsets during the pandemic, and Square Inc. said in its latest corporate social responsibility report that by allowing employees the option of permanently working from home it's helping to reduce commute emissions and the amount of energy used for workplace construction.

Apple, which is also carbon zero for its corporate emissions, is focused on reducing employees' carbon footprints by targeting commutes. While they will enforce a hybrid back-to-work model, only allowing employees to work from home a couple of days a week, the company said in its 2021 Environmental Progress Report it will continue to encourage commute options like mass transit to cut down on emissions.

Last month, some of Apple's employees pushed back on the company's plan for returning to the office. In a letter addressed to Tim Cook, later obtained by The Verge, workers requested insight into the environmental impact of returning to in-person work.

Estimates from Global Workplace Analytics found that if people who have the ability to work from home were to work remotely half of the time, "the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce off the road," the organization states on its site.

There will certainly be some increase in greenhouse gases as the economy recovers, Kenneth Gillingham told Protocol. Gillingham, a professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cautions that there are much less costly ways of curbing emissions than a global pandemic.

Autodesk has been accounting for its employees' carbon footprints since before the health crisis. The company reached net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 and its employees only account for 5% of the company's carbon footprint, said Stephen Fukuhara, vice president of workplace and travel at Autodesk.

"We consider environmental impacts with all of our workplace and travel decisions," said Fukuhara. "Our offices have been powered by 100% renewable energy since 2016, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we purchased additional renewable energy and carbon offsets to account for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our employees' home office energy consumption. We plan to continue this practice moving forward."

The company chose to go with a flexible workplace program following the pandemic that will allow its workforce to choose from working primarily in the office, a hybrid setup or working completely remote.

"Working from home has benefits but from the environmental perspective work from home is not a panacea," said Gillingham.

Reporter Allison Levitsky contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Steve Cicala's job title. This story was updated on July 13, 2021.

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