Working from home now has another powerful benefit


Want to work fewer days from the office? You could be doing the planet a favor.

Fully remote workers could produce less than half the climate-warming emissions of people who spend their days in offices, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In an analysis of various work scenarios, people’s behaviors, and sources of emissions, researchers found that switching from working onsite to working from home full-time may reduce a person’s carbon footprint by more than 50 percent. Hybrid schedules where people work remotely for two to four days a week could also cut emissions by 11 to 29 percent, according to the study.

The findings help shed more light on the factors that can influence the environmental and climate effects of different work models, said Longqi Yang, an applied research manager at Microsoft and one of the paper’s authors.

“The remote work has to be significant in order to realize this kind of benefits,” Yang said. “This study provides a very important data point for a dimension that people care a lot about when deciding remote work policy.”

The benefits of remote work

To conduct the analysis, the study’s authors drew on multiple data sets, including the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey and Microsoft’s employee data on commuting and teleworking behaviors. The researchers, several of whom are Microsoft employees, modeled greenhouse gas emissions of U.S.-based employees working entirely remotely, on hybrid schedules, and fully onsite. The analysis focused on emissions from a variety of sources, including residential and office energy use, commuting, non-commute-related travel, and IT usage.

The study found that working remotely more than one day per week could cut emissions, mainly driven by less office energy use and commuting. But the researchers cautioned against assuming that any amount of remote work could be good for the planet.

“This is a very complicated system,” said Fengqi You, a professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University and another author of the paper.

For instance, the results suggest that a hybrid model allowing employees to only work one day from home produces a negligible reduction in emissions because the benefits would likely be offset by factors such as more non-work-related travel and home energy use.

“Realizing the environmental benefits of remote work requires careful configurations of lifestyle, home and office, and coordinated sustainable practices and incentives across individuals, companies, and policymakers,” the authors wrote in the study.

Traffic on a Los Angeles freeway during the evening rush-hour commute earlier this year in Alhambra, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A ‘piece of the puzzle’

Yang said the research helps characterize what the major sources of emissions related to work are and where they come from. The paper’s findings could give people and organizations a better idea of where to focus efforts if they want to reduce their footprint, he said, adding that emissions associated with commuting and office energy use are clear targets.

The paper also adds to the understanding of the role individual behaviors can play, said Joe O’Connor, director and co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence, who was not involved in the new research.

“This study really emphasizes the importance of lifestyle and the choices that we make ... when we’re working remotely as being really key to realizing the kinds of potential benefits that can be unlocked,” O’Connor said.

John Trougakos, a professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who has studied remote and hybrid work models, said the research is “another bit of information that we can utilize to help us make more informed decisions.”

“It’s one interesting piece of the puzzle, but not the whole story,” said Trougakos, who was not involved in the study. “To have a comprehensive plan for something like this, you’re looking at more than just the workplace, and obviously the other choices that people make in their life will also impact the emissions that they create and that organizations might create as well.”

The study’s analysis focused on the United States and largely reflects the behaviors of office workers who live in a large city. Additionally, You, one of the researchers, said the environmental benefits and costs of different work models could shift in the future as the country moves toward greater adoption of electric vehicles and clean energy sources.

“Things will change over time,” You said. “This is a study for now.”

Making work greener

Maximizing the environmental benefits of remote work depends on multiple factors, including vehicle choice, commuting behavior, and energy efficiency in homes and offices, the researchers found. For example, the study reported that if hybrid workers shared desks at the office instead of having their own, that could reduce emissions by 28 percent.

The results suggest that fully remote and flexible work options have environmental benefits, Yang said. But he said workplaces should go beyond just addressing their work policies if they want to reduce emissions. He suggested taking steps to power offices with renewable energy or providing cleaner transportation options for commuters, such as electric shuttles.

“We’re not trying to predict the future, but I think the future is all up to us,” Yang said. “This study tells people, if we want to be more carbon neutral in the future, what can we do now?”

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