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Cutting the Commute Helps, But Recognize Work-from-Home Emissions, Experts Urge Companies

The hybrid work week—with employees commuting to the office only occasionally—is not enough to limit corporate carbon footprints in a post-pandemic reality. Experts say progress to cut emissions could be held back if larger questions of evolving employee behaviours, efficient use of indoor space, and impacts on cities are not addressed.

“Now that we’re going back to work, it’s this rare once-a-decade reset moment when companies can redefine their working model and do it with an eye on carbon,” Taylor Francis, co-founder of corporate decarbonization software platform Watershed, told the Guardian. But “the punchline is that it’s more complicated than meets the eye.”

Greenhouse gases from commuting drew attention at the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset when reports showed that declining surface transportation emissions played a large role in Canada’s 7% emissions reduction (daily CO2 emissions decreased globally by 17% during this time). With offices looking to reopen, and more people commuting again, any environmental gains will be reversed, Saeed Kaddoura, a senior analyst at the Pembina Institute, told the Toronto Star.

But overall emissions will not necessarily stay low by avoiding commuting, and the work-from-home (WFH) shift has presented environmental challenges of its own, including emissions from booming e-commerce deliveries and inefficient energy consumption in home offices, Kaddoura said.

Other emission sources have risen as employees, now untethered from desk chairs, travel more. The added time spent communicating virtually has its own impacts and increases emissions generated by using technology.

Though the emissions from online meetings may seem small, “our digital behaviours add up,” writes Harvard Business Review. According to one study, the annual emails of a typical, pre-pandemic business user generates emissions equivalent to driving 320 kilometres in a family car.

U.S. workers will spend about 25% of their time working from home in the next 10 years, Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, told The Atlantic. “The number of person-days in the office is never going back to pre-pandemic average, ever,” he added, so office managers will need to balance the costs of unused office space with concerns for productivity and worker happiness.

Some companies are considering hybrid work models to accommodate employee preferences, where work in shared office space takes place less than five days a week and is supplemented by WFH days. But this could create a worst-case scenario if the approach results in “consuming more energy and emitting more emissions as both homes and offices are fully operating to enable teleworkers and office workers to do their jobs,” reports Carbon Trust.

Bigger-picture issues—like how WFH will change city structures and systems—could also have unexpected impacts on emissions levels. For example, city dwellers relocating farther from corporate centres could drive suburban sprawl and increase the number of cars on the roads. Less transit demand in city cores could also lessen the demand for public transportation and increase reliance on personal vehicles, writes the Guardian.

Because WFH emissions can be caused by non-work behaviours like energy use and waste disposal, managers aiming to achieve sustainability goals will need to craft their remote work policies carefully. Harvard Business Review offers three suggestions to corporate leaders who care about their companies’ WFH impact: develop a culture of sustainability, provide supportive policies like bike schemes or encouraging a switch to renewables at home, and finally, tailor sustainability plans to the company’s circumstances, instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.