On Earth Day, we step back and look at the environmental impact of one of the defining macro trends of our age – remote work.
In April last year, during the peak of the first wave of Covid lockdown, people in Jalandhar, Punjab, woke up to an unusually majestic sight.
Himalayas from Jalandhar, India – Source: CNN
The Himalayas were visible from the city for the first time in over three decades. The lockdown had reduced air pollution to unprecedented levels, leaving visibility of over 100 miles.
Jalandhar wasn’t alone. Cities worldwide experienced a sort of environmental resurgence, from dolphins in Venice to nilgais in Delhi.
While the lockdown was an extreme example, the question is still relevant and urgent – Is remote work good for the environment?
The research on the subject is in its early days, and the jury is still out. But if the early signs are good indicators, the answer isn’t all that surprising. Let’s look at remote work’s impact on some of the pressing environmental concerns.
Does Remote Work Reduce Traffic Congestion?
While the natural answer is “of course,” some critics claim that the reduction in traffic congestion was more due to the pandemic and lockdown measures than remote work. And when the situation returns to normal, remote workers will start traveling more – to their favorite destinations, cafes, co-working spaces.
This argument might have held some merit if remote work only started in 2020. But it has been around for more than a decade, and there is considerable research on the subject.
The image of frantic digital nomads who are always on the move doesn’t reflect the reality of remote work. According to GitLab’s pre-covid survey, 86% of remote workers prefer to work from home. It’s unsurprising as people need the proper WFH setup to do deep work, which can be hard to recreate while traveling. Even by conservative estimates, remote work reduces peak traffic congestion by 10-15%.
27% of Americans want to live in rural areas but have to stay in cities due to their work. Remote work can empower people to live wherever they want and help reduce urban congestion at the same time.
So it’s safe to say that remote work reduces traffic, leading to a reduction in vehicular emissions, noise pollution, and urban congestion.
Does Remote Work Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
This question is much more complicated than the previous one. The remote work indeed reduces vehicular emissions, but what about overall greenhouse gas emissions?
Critics say that office spaces are, in general, more energy-efficient than homes. Research by WSP UK found out that air conditioning in office buildings is a lot more efficient than powering individual homes.
But the scope of such studies is more specific. What about places where offices aren’t as energy-efficient. What about countries that use more renewable energy? And we can’t simply look at the energy efficiency of standalone office complexes. What about the emissions involved in building such places in the first place – construction, industrial processing, transportation, etc.
This exercise can turn into a rabbit hole. But there are a few telltale signs that favor the argument that remote work indeed reduces greenhouse emissions.
- People have a higher incentive to be more energy efficient at home than at work.
- In 2018, approximately 28% of all greenhouse emissions came from transportation, which is impacted by remote work.
- 90% of the fuel for transport comes from fossil fuel. Any reduction in transportation emissions makes a significant impact on overall greenhouse emissions.
We’ll continue to see more research in this field in the coming months and years. And it’s unlikely to give any nasty surprises. Remote work reduces greenhouse emissions.
Does Remote Work Reduce Waste?
Paper and plastic are the two most significant contributors to material wastage at work. Remote work significantly reduces their usage.
Plastic coffee lids, straws, disposable cups have much higher usage at work. At home, people are less likely to use single-use plastic when consuming food or drinks. It’s common for those working from home to reuse cups and cutlery throughout their day.
The Most Important Factor of All
So far we’ve looked at how remote work reduces traffic congestion, greenhouse emissions, and material wastage; which are all important indicators of positive impact on the environment. But does it impact the most critical factor that influences the environment? A factor that’s often overlooked while discussing environmental initiatives – human prosperity.
Time and again, research has shown that human prosperity leads to a greener planet. For example, smoke in urban areas declines as per capita income increases. The fact that industrialized economies drive the majority of green initiatives is not a coincidence. You can’t force people to develop environmental consciousness if they are struggling to meet their basic needs.
Top 10 countries with % of renewable energy – Source: Smart Energy
Prosperity also influences population growth. As families enter the middle class, they have fewer kids, reducing the risk of overpopulation.
Remote work presents unprecedented opportunities. People in regions that never had an infrastructure to create jobs can work for a company on the other side of the planet. This has the potential to increase wage rates in many places around the world. Remote work also increases the participation of women in the workforce.
Another indicator of prosperity apart from material wealth is mental health. According to a survey by ZenBusiness, 60% of respondents witnessed an improvement in their mental health due to remote work. As organizations fine-tune their remote work policies and people get better at drawing WFH boundaries, this number would continue to increase.
To sum up, you’d be hard-pressed to find any negative impact of remote work on the environment. We’ll keep our ears to the ground for the latest research. But for now, it seems like remote work gets a big thumbs up from Mother Nature.
For resources to help your team’s remote transition, check out our Remote Insights.