Is remote working really more environmentally sustainable?
When the pandemic forced most companies to go remote, environmental advocates praised one of the clear benefits: no more daily commuting, resulting in fewer emissions.
People began to wonder if remote work was one of the solutions to a cleaner, greener world. However, it became clear that it’s more nuanced than that. Companies who decided to stay remote found that while they’re not asking employees to commute every day, they are asking them to meet a couple of times a year for offsites, which usually requires a flight since workers are dispersed across the globe.
“Just going remote or working from home doesn’t naturally mean that it’s completely better for the environment, even though you may be reducing commutes,” said remote work expert Rowena Hennigan.
Much of it comes down to the nature of individuals’ particular commutes. “If you’re a digital nomad and you’re flying around the country or renting a gas-guzzling sprinter van driving 300 miles all the time, you’re certainly greener at home,” said Chris Moeller, founder of business consulting company Orion Growth and thought leader on the future of work.
Moeller said what’s green for one company might not be green enough for another. It ultimately starts with having a company decide what its values are and how it plans to tackle its sustainability efforts.
“No two paths to meeting sustainability and climate goals are the same,” said Jennifer Steinmann, Deloitte Global Sustainability and Climate Practice leader. “Every industry, geography, and organization comes with its own unique requirements in moving from their sustainability commitments to action.”
Chase Warrington, head of remote at software company Doist, admits that he didn’t at first think that working remotely might end up in more emissions than someone going into the office everyday.
“Someone asked me during an AMA session during a conference about the downsides of remote and the negative impact on the environment,” said Warrington. “I was stunned. This guy challenged me and then we ended up having some amazing discussions and he really educated me on some of these things and planted the seed.”
From there, Warrington took the opportunity over the past year to look closer at what impact the company is having on the environment when requiring its 100 employees from 35 countries to meet in person for a retreat. An analysis by the Guardian found that CO2 emissions from one flight can equate to the same annual emissions of the average commuter.
Climate platform Watershed puts it simply on its website: “Remote work shifts carbon: emissions from energy and food still exist, but at employees’ homes, where they may be better or worse than in the office.” Even if someone isn’t a digital nomad, there are other questions like what percentage of employees power their homes with clean power, what’s the carbon cost of Uber Eats compared to a company cafeteria, for instance.
Watershed’s emissions calculator found that five flights a year for 2,000 employees can add up to nearly 8,800 tons of CO2, or the equivalent of more than 2,000 people’s annual food consumption.
Warrington worked alongside sustainability consultant Kai Greentree, who was a student at the time and used this for a case study project, to calculate the emissions of all of Doist’s retreats and decide on key action steps to reduce carbon emissions.
The answer couldn’t be to nix retreats completely.
“It’s really important from a human connection point of view,” said Hennigan. “Planet or people, which comes first? I do think retreats are really important, but it’s the way you do the retreat.”
Doist decided to incorporate intentional efforts into its retreats like consuming local products, optimizing travel to minimize flight time and distance, requesting vendors not provide single-use plastics and operating for services with a sustainability plan. Companies can also recommend employees to use preferred airlines that use biofuels or have the least carbon emissions.
In addition to Doist’s efforts, the company also decided to dedicate a portion of the total retreat budget to a sustainability cause to help offset carbon emissions, which helped spur internal discussion and get more people involved within the company.
“It’s an imperfect response to a big problem,” said Warrington. “The first thing is acknowledging that and not acting like you will always do all of the right things at the expense of the company.”
Companies are increasingly turning to sustainability consultants for advice. Deloitte has helped clients build climate action strategies into their operations and mitigate the risks that come with a warming world for over 20 years. Deloitte reported that in recent years, the urgent need for climate expertise has only increased.
There are other solutions that can be considered too. Hennigan is an advocate for slow travel when workforces are meeting for offsites. She traveled from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Zaragoza, Spain by taxi, bus, ferry and train rather than a flight and calculated her emissions along the way to see what would be more environmentally friendly. Her flights would have generated 197 kg of CO2 emissions, while her slow travel came out to 61 kg of CO2. While not everyone always has the additional time to travel over a couple of days, it is an option to consider.
“Slow travel is more sustainable for human beings as a way of traveling,” said Hennigan. “Aside from being more gentle on the planet, it’s better for your own mental health and makes you take your time. I felt better mentally and from a wellbeing perspective when I took my time traveling.”
“Every remote team I know is exploring retreats now and I hope we can influence some of them to make some cuts and think differently about this and at least consider it,” said Warrington. “I had my blinders on and just thought how remote is good for the environment. There are more things to consider. Giving people the opportunity to think twice and consider what they’re doing is important.”