We’re Commuting Less, But WFH Isn’t Necessarily Better for the Environment

A new report from researchers at the London School of Economics suggests this era is taking a toll on the planet

A desk facing a window.
You don't have to leave the house. But what if your house isn't environmentally friendly?
Mikey Harris/Unsplash

According to a recent report published today in the Harvard Business Review, written by a team of researchers from the London School of Economics, hybrid and remote work isn’t the obvious environmental win we all assume it is.

People are definitely commuting less. The number of people who need to travel anywhere reduced by 17% during the pandemic, leading to lots of thinkpieces on how telecommuting could help fight climate change. But as the authors have also taken pains to point out in a collaborative project with MoreThanNow, a UK-based behavioral science practice, the reduction in daily travel doesn’t tell the entire story.

There’s way more at stake here. Consider: while companies can often appear clunky and disingenuous in the fight against climate change, many have spent the last five to 10 years investing time and money into ESG criteria, as part of a larger corporate ethic strategy. These efforts often manifest in the physical office space, where energy, technology and waste footprints are given special attention.

Buildings are designed to meet green standards, with energy-efficient windows and temperature regulation; caterers that donate excess food or compost food waste are given lunch priority; single-use plastics are formally out of circulation or culturally frowned-upon, and so on. But these initiatives can’t have much of an impact when a sizable percentage of a company’s employees are working from home.

Instead, a company’s footprint becomes more difficult to track — and it’s at the individual mercies of the behavioral patterns of its employees, which are harder to track. (Many would argue rightfully so, considering the lines between work and home are already blurred enough. Some, perhaps, would balk if they were encouraged to install solar panels on their roof, executives’ potentially noble intentions be damned.)

There are also some pandemic-borne practices that are actively contributing to an uptick in emissions and likely erasing whatever progress we’ve gained from the scale down in commuting. The authors identify a marked rise in telework travel, which tends to cover more miles than a traditional ride to the office. Once your boss is okay with you working from California for a couple weeks, or starting the weekend early with a Friday road trip up to a lake house, working on the road becomes customary and almost expected. It’s easy to justify it in our brains — I’m cooped up, I’m saving so much money — but from the planet’s perspective, these trips take their toll.

Plus, we’re on our computers more than ever. It’s easy to forget that using a laptop requires energy, and these days, we’re using them more than ever, replacing what used to be in-person meetings with multi-hour sessions on Zoom. An eyebrow-raising line from the article: “A typical business user creates 298lbs of CO2e from sending emails every year, which is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car, just under the distance from Brussels to London.”

Companies will need time to find answers. The one answer they know for sure: nobody wants to give up this new hybrid working model. A recent Gallup poll found that 91% of workers are determined to keep this model as it is. Do most employees realize that their new normal could be hurting the environment? Probably not. It’ll be up to employers to negotiate the tricky task of educating their employees and implementing thoughtful measures, without appearing like they’re knocking down front doors. For more information on how they might be able to pull that off, check out the full report here.

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