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Beyond 9 to 5: saving the environment by working from home?

“We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different,” told Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of the highly popular workplace chat app, Slack in an interview about the future of work.

After a year of continuous lockdowns, many believe that we should fundamentally change our past working patterns while starting to prepare for entering a new era of working in the post-pandemic world. Without a doubt, we learnt a lot about home office under confinement, experiencing all of its positive and negative impacts.

The question is whether we should keep at least some of the elements of remote working after the end of the pandemic – whenever that is – or should we return to normal office hours. According to a new study from McKinsey & Company, one-third of work in Europe’s leading economies could continue to be done remotely even after the pandemic subsides. Workers also indicated that, while they might welcome a partial return to the traditional workplace, they have little desire to go back to the daily grind of a 9-5 office schedule either. According to these projections, we will likely see some sort of hybrid model, balancing the efficiencies gained by remote work with the benefits of social interactions.

Teleworking has overarching implications on many fields of our lives, from digitalisation, through social inequalities to gender issues. Sustainability is one of these many fields that worth to take a look at. Should we just skip our everyday car drive to our office and trade it in for a commute from our bed to the living room? While the answer might be obvious at first sight, the situation is slightly more complicated.

How do you get to work?

Transport represents almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the main cause of air pollution in cities. By mid-century, emissions from transport will need to be at least 60 per cent lower than in 1990 to be firmly on the path towards zero. Reducing emissions from daily commuting could be one way to start.

As the COVID-19 crisis spread around the world, government lockdowns triggered a fall of 50 per cent to 75 per cent in road traffic around the world, big cities saw a significant drop in rush-hour congestion and consequently carbon dioxide emissions. According to a study of the University of California, in San Francisco, a 50 per cent drop in road traffic was followed by a 25 per cent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions under the pandemic.

This suggests that reducing commuter travel can be a pretty easy and effective way of cutting back emissions, however, the picture is a bit more complex as we arrive to different outcomes depending on a number of factors: whether most commuters drive cars or take public transit, how far they’re coming from and what electricity sources the city uses.

According to the analysis of the International Energy Agency (IEA) for people who commute by car, working from home is likely to reduce their CO2 footprint if their journey to work is greater than about 6 kilometres. However, for short car commutes or those done by public transport, working from home could increase CO2 emissions due to extra residential energy consumption.

In the United States, the average one-way commute by car is around 18 kilometres, and over three-quarters of car commuters travel alone. Commuters in Europe also generally opt for cars over public transport, although there are large variations between urban and rural commutes.

How much energy do you use at home?

There is also another side of the story, which is painfully familiar for most of us who face high energy bills because of increased fuel use during the lockdown. On the residential side, a day of working from home could increase household energy consumption from 7 to 23 per cent compared with a day working at the office according to IEA. Of course, the overall environmental impact once again depends on many factors: the season or the efficiency of appliances, but mainly the residential fuel mix.

If remote working triggers increased electricity in a city or a country where the additional power must be covered by coal-fuelled power plants, it could outweigh the emission reductions coming from reduced commuting traffic. On the other hand, if that added electricity comes from renewable energy, teleworking could result in more significant emissions reductions.

For instance, I write this article in the comfort of my home, in Budapest. Otherwise, I would commute to our office by public transport, not by car. Additionally, it’s winter and my gas heater is running all day, which means that in my case working from home probably increases CO2 emissions due to my “extra residential energy consumption”. However, if I would write this article somewhere in the US, where the average one-way commute by car is around 18 kilometres and over three-quarters of car commuters travel alone, the picture would be probably very different.

Looking at the net global effect of home office

So, how could it impact global carbon emissions if people could keep some advantages of remote working and go for home office one day per week after the pandemic, as most of them indicated in the survey of McKinsey? Taking all the above-mentioned factors into account, IEA estimated that during an average year, the overall energy saved as a result of less commuting is still around four times larger than the increase in residential energy consumption.

On a global level, oil savings would be around 11.9 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) per year – (or about 250,000 barrels a day) corresponding to about one per cent of road passenger transport consumption, according to the estimates of IEA. After including the extra residential demand, overall energy use would fall by around 8.5 Mtoe, resulting in a drop of 24 Mt in annual CO2 emissions.

This scenario of “one day per week home office” is relatively modest, however, even IEA notes that the long term impacts on energy and emissions of a trend towards greater working from home are uncertain.

We have to make another important side-note here, notably that the very nature of some occupations makes it difficult or impossible to perform them away from the standard worksite. According to the estimations of the World Economic Forum on average 37 per cent of dependent employment can technically be carried out remotely in the EU, but the ratio changes from country to country, with the highest value in Luxembourg (54 per cent) and the lowest in Romania (27 per cent). On a global scale, the divergence is even bigger, with a positive correlation between the potential to work from home and GDP per capita.

All in all, the pandemic had a profound impact on the labour market. Although there are still many blind spots are next moves are crucial as we have the chance to shape the future patterns of sustainable working culture and – as in many other areas – to build it back better.

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