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Making work from home sustainable

A growing number of companies are striving to measure remote work sustainability, but it’s not an easy feat. Here are some best practices for evaluating the environmental impact of employees working from home.

Av Susan Lahey, Contributing Writer

Senast uppdaterad May 22, 2023

What is the difference between energy consumed in an office for 1,000 employees vs. energy consumed by 1,000 remote workers in their homes? It’s complicated. Companies that have performed a sustainability audit probably know how much power the office consumes. They may have designed the building to run on renewables or to conserve energy. They may have tracked recycling and composting. But when much of their workforce is remote, how can they evaluate their sustainability programs? Leading companies have started trying to figure that out.

Reuters surveyed 20 companies and found that 10 of them had started measuring the energy consumption of remote workers. Salesforce reported that remote work led to a 29 percent drop in emissions per employee. Facebook, now Meta, found that the CO2 per employee dropped by half—to one ton—after remote work began, but the company based its calculations on commuting alone. Fidelity Investments kicked off a sustainability program in 2020 and reported that moving to remote work wiped out 87 percent of its emissions cuts from that year. Overall, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, during COVID, industrial and commercial energy consumption dropped about 15 percent and residential consumption grew about 10 percent.

But many companies found the idea of trying to evaluate remote work sustainability overwhelming.

For example, you can’t compare energy consumption at an office to energy consumption at home during the same hours because people don’t turn everything off when they go to work. They may not even lower the heat or cooling because of pets or family members at home. They may have a partner or roommate who is also working from home. So the question becomes, how much more energy are people using at home and how is that offset by not being at the office?

People working from home just one day a week would reduce global emissions by about 24 million tons—equal to the bulk emissions of Greater London, with 9.5 million people.

It seems like it would be easy to calculate the CO2 savings from reduced commuting, but it isn’t, necessarily. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that if an employee’s commute is over 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), they will save CO2 by working from home. In the U.S., the IEA says, the average one-way commute is 18 kilometers (about 11 miles). The organization estimates that people working from home just one day a week would reduce global emissions by about 24 million tons—equal to the bulk emissions of Greater London, with 9.5 million people.

Then there are the conjecture questions like, “What if someone who works from home buys a larger place so they can have a home office, but that winds up using more energy?” Or, “What if people become digital nomads and travel internationally?” Airplanes are among the worst emitters.

Companies need to be able to compare how sustainable the workplace was to how sustainable their remote workers are and figure out how to improve from there. They must know what to measure, how to measure it, and what to do about it if they find the emissions from remote workers are too high.

What to measure

In evaluating the sustainability of employees at home, companies can measure several things, including:

  • Emissions saved by not commuting

  • Energy consumption of specific devices and technologies used

  • Home energy consumption comparison pre- and post-pandemic, especially after the lockdown ended and children returned to school. Many factors may play into this number.

  • Home water consumption pre- and post-pandemic

  • Home waste management in terms of tonnage of recycling, compost, and trash

Some companies may just measure what employees use for working at home. Microsoft reported to Reuters that it figured an employee used one laptop, two monitors, and three lightbulbs. The company didn’t calculate heating or cooling or the use of other devices while at home. This simplifies the measurement but makes it less accurate.

In a comprehensive audit, each employee will have unique issues that impact their numbers: the type of heating and cooling they use—in some buildings, people can’t set their own thermostats—whether their home is energy efficient, whether their appliances and plumbing are energy efficient, whether they have access to composting, whether there are others in the home, and so forth.

How to measure it

The question isn’t how much energy a home uses or how much waste it produces so much as how much more energy it uses or waste it produces compared to pre-work-from-home levels. Many people don’t track these things, so implementing a company-wide culture of tracking them would help reach sustainability goals. Unfortunately, there’s no simple, intuitive approach to this—yet.

Some calculators, like Watershed, measure aggregate data. The United Nations offers a tool for organizations and individuals, while numerous other apps let individuals calculate their carbon footprints. This can include everything from energy use and commuting emissions to the carbon footprint of your diet and purchases. Some allow users to share their carbon reduction efforts with others, meaning carbon tracking could become gamified and community-oriented. But tracking this data is sometimes painstaking—requiring collecting data from old bills, for example—and not every employee may want that kind of granular personal data going to their employer.

Another way to measure is with home energy monitoring tools, but these can’t differentiate all your devices according to some reviewers, so that makes them somewhat less useful for the purpose.

It’s important to recognize that there are socioeconomic considerations to these measurements, too. Employees may not be able to afford energy-efficient homes and appliances that cost more. Renters can’t switch to renewable energy sources and often have less control over their energy bills and factors like composting than homeowners do. Such discrepancies need to be accounted for.

Plus, employees must volunteer the data on their home consumption, which means a company must identify incentives that will encourage them to do so. One such incentive might be offering to make employees’ homes greener. This benefits the company’s sustainability numbers while saving employees money on energy costs.

What to do about it

Some companies cover their remote workers’ energy consumption by buying carbon offsets, but this doesn’t truly remedy the issue. At the other end of the spectrum, some companies are paying their employees’ higher energy bills or investing in helping employees move to renewable energy sources for their homes. There are several ways to help workers have more sustainable homes, including assisting with weatherization, shifting to more efficient heating and cooling systems, switching to energy-efficient appliances and low-flow plumbing, purchasing countertop composters for apartment dwellers, and so forth.

Investing in such things for employees who participate in sustainability tracking and proactively improving their home practices could boost the company’s ESG quotient and provide a desirable perk for employees, as it could increase the value of their homes and lower their bills.

Any sustainability program must be built into the company’s DNA, all of its decision-making, and its culture.

Of course, any sustainability program must be built into the company’s DNA, all of its decision-making, and its culture. A truly sustainable company will attract people who are committed to living and working sustainably. Employees are more likely to be willing to track their emissions and share their data; they’ll also be enthusiastic about rewards that increase sustainability if they’re personally invested in sustainability.

Recent studies show many employees want to keep working from home. Moreover, there are signs that—if done correctly—maintaining a remote workforce can benefit the environment. Just as learning how to empower and manage a remote workforce pushed the workplace into exciting and challenging growth and development, inspiring remote workers to manage their impact on the environment could make a huge difference in furthering the green transition.

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