NEWS Do We Need to Sacrifice the Planet to Work from Home?

What does remote working ‒ or ‘working from home’ (WFH) as it’s affectionately known ‒ mean for the future of life in Britain?

The COVID-19 pandemic is, undoubtedly, the biggest working from home experiment in history – at least half of the British workforce worked from home part, if not all, of the week in Summer 2020. Working from home has proved very popular with employees, so much so that many employers are facing up to a permanent change to at least a hybrid model of working in which employees work from home at least some of every week. The continuation of working from home throws up obvious questions in regard to employee collaboration, productivity, and wellbeing – that’s a certainty and something which is continually being analysed and assessed.

However, the idea of its impact on the environment and sustainability is something which remains comparatively unexamined in public discourse. There is no denying that the behaviour of employees can have considerable impacts on the environment, so the argument for working from home, particularly when taking this into account, needs to be properly considered.

What the facts say about the environment and working from home

This topic, is, for sure, one of the hardest to pin down thanks to the sheer number of variables. That said, there are some things that we know for certain and, similarly, we know there are a number of things businesses can do to ensure that the environment is not sacrificed.

Think of the number of variables: consumer electronics; home energy consumption; non-work travel; home technologies available; and type of office space – when all of these are considered, WFH begins to appear in a slightly different light to being a clear environmental win.

But, what about the numbers?

Three particularly interesting facts emerge from the MoreThanNow “Working From Home: The Sustainability Question” report. Firstly, the average business user creates 135kg of CO2e from sending emails every year which is equivalent to 200 miles driven in a family car.

Secondly, at our current rate of video conferencing and streaming, it would take 71,600 square miles of forest to sequester all the associated CO2 pollution.

Finally, food, must be a major consideration – it lies behind 26% of all greenhouse gases and 50% of UK wasted food comes from households.

James Hand, Founder of Giki, a social enterprise which makes it easier to live sustainably, discussed the complication associated with assessing the environmental impact of working from home, commenting: “One: how much energy do you save by not travelling to work? Two: how much extra energy do you use by being at home?”

Weighing up the positives and negatives of home and office working

When working from home some of the obvious savings for the environment include the reduction in travel, limiting carbon emissions associated with fuel, a reduction in single use plastic from coffee cups and takeaway sandwiches, and an overall reduction in household waste, by using the foods that you have at home.

The office, meanwhile, also boasts advantages – running one electric and heating system on a daily basis as opposed to hundreds clearly helps drive down the associated pollution. However, when you think about the hybrid working approach, an office will obviously be running heating and electricity all of the time even if only half of the staff or less are present.

If it is the case that businesses are operating a hybrid approach, it must be questioned whether or not they can successfully operate a half-heated or half-lit system.

What the experts say

A report by Moneybarn found that the average commute in the UK is 37km, with the average petrol car producing 142g of CO2 per km. These figures strongly support the environmental benefits of home working, especially when this data is combined with that of tech giant Huawei, which indicates that the emissions associated from data centres and its video conferencing total just 0.6 per cent of the carbon emissions from a daily commute.

However, the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions at the University of Sussex noted: “While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies, and those with a broader scope, present more ambiguous findings. Where studies include additional impacts such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”

The non-work travel aspect of the above statement is something worth paying attention to. Workplace commutes aren’t actually the biggest contributor to carbon emissions when analysing emissions arising from car travel – they actually make up less than 20 per cent with shopping and leisure trips accounting for 45 per cent.

What can businesses do to support the environment when staff are WFH?

There are a number of areas in which businesses can support their staff when working from home in order to help keep their emissions low: energy; water; electronics; internet usage; food; waste; and travel.

Employers can help their staff switch to greener energy suppliers, transition onto more plant-based lunches (such as meat-free Mondays) and reduce the number of online meetings with video-calls to cut down on data usage.

 

There’s no doubt that the future will hold challenges for businesses and employers alike but, if we’re going to make WFH work, then we need to consider the planet too.

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Feb 24, 2022.

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