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How is the “home office” changing our response to climate change?

This week’s reports on potential bankruptcy plans for the US company WeWork, offering shared office spaces around the world – including Poland and Czechia – could be another clear sign that “office life” is going out of fashion. If more homes are soon set to become our career hubs, what impact will a further move towards the “home office” have on your effort to avert the climate crisis? 

Naturally, one of the first things that comes to mind is less commuting and thus less reliance on fossil fuels. According to a US-centred study by Global Workplace Analytics, around 54 million tonnes of carbon emissions could be cut if half of employees capable of working remotely would not go into the office.

Considering this study in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, lower emissions would naturally improve air quality – a particularly relevant point for Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, which are among the countries with the worst air quality levels in Europe.

Similar findings have recently been published in a more in-depth study by Cornell and Microsoft published on 18 September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the study, those working remotely can lower their carbon footprint by 54 per cent in comparison to onsite workers.

However, more time at home may not always be beneficial for the climate, as highlighted by a 2020 report on remote working by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Whilst less frequent commute is likely to reduce your carbon dioxide footprint, if the journey is longer than six kilometres – for those taking short car commutes or public transport, working from home could actually increase carbon emissions due to extra residential energy consumption, the study found.

Here, public transport plays a key role. Indeed, if a bus or train is your usual mode of transport to the office, it is likely that your household’s net energy demand will increase, although regional and seasonal differences are significant. However, the “home office” can reduce the energy demand if you usually commute by car, according to the IEA study.

The “home office” – a new tool for energy efficiency?

More broadly, the short-term perspective on the climate impact of home working leaves us with some important nuances and unanswered questions, particularly when most companies continue to maintain their offices whilst some or most of their employees work in a hybrid or remote form.

However, should the drop in demand for office spaces continue to drop – as confirmed by recent studies and illustrated by WeWork’s financial struggles – the role of the “home office” in cutting overall energy consumption and increasing efficiency could become clearer. “Over time, a more significant shift to home working could also result in a reduction in demand for office space and energy for commercial buildings, and therefore a greater overall reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions,” the IEA study read.

Considering the potential contribution of remote working in strengthening energy efficiency, where does Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) stand in the shift away from the traditional office?

In 2022, 50 per cent of enterprises with 10 or more employees or self-employed persons conducted remote meetings via the internet in the EU, according to Eurostat. Close to matching the EU average, Austria (49.5 per cent), Estonia (47.7 per cent) and Slovenia (46.2 per cent) had the highest number of “remote-friendly” enterprises among CEE – whilst Romania (31.2 per cent), Hungary (29.4 per cent) and Bulgaria (28.2) found themselves at the bottom of the overall ranking.

It will be interesting to see how digitisation powerhouses like Estonia will adopt remote work in their considerations on energy efficiency measures, and how this could inspire other countries in the region like Bulgaria. Perhaps a key takeaway from this data is that CEE is not necessarily uniformly “lagging behind” the digital work space transition, but is rather shaping future regional leaders in this area.

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