Co-authored with Olivia Hansen
More people have been working from home over the past few months than ever before in modern history. In the wake of COVID-19, government restrictions and company policies alike have been put in place to encourage social distancing by requiring workers to clock in from their home office or spare bedroom. Of course, not everyone can work remotely (not to mention the many Americans who are currently out of work). But for the percentage that can work remotely, the large-scale shift towards remote work seems to have staying power. If this happens, it will have positive consequences in the long term both for employees and for the environment.
At some point, restrictions on movement and social gatherings will be removed. People will start to travel again, both for work and to visit family and go on vacation. At that point, carbon emissions will tick back upwards. But there is reason to believe that some portion of the downward trend in carbon emissions may be permanent. Even after the pandemic subsides, people are likely to commute to and from work much less than they did in the pre-COVID-19 world. They may also use less electricity in large office buildings and need less space for parking in crowded urban centers. All of that could add up to some serious environmental benefits.
Working from home could benefit the environment
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, commuting took up a huge amount of time and resources for millions of American workers. According to the U.S. Census, the average worker in 2018 spent almost a full hour each weekday driving to and from work. That adds up to 225 hours every year spent in traffic — the equivalent of nine entire days spent in the car. As the figure below shows, commute times were the highest in big cities on the coasts, where America’s high-paying jobs tend to be concentrated. Remote work could change all of that, as workers may no longer need to live in expensive cities to have access to the best job opportunities.
In addition to being bad for workers’ health and finances, commuting is also one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. According to the EPA, transportation accounted for the largest portion of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, and light-duty vehicles made up the largest source of transportation-related emissions. That means each and every trip to work is contributing to higher carbon emissions.
The environmental and cost-savings benefits of remote work have been known for a while. In 2008, the California-based company Sun Microsystems conducted its Open Work Energy Measurement Project, which sought to answer the question, “Does Open Work really save energy, or just transfer energy cost and load to employees?” With 56 percent of Sun’s employees working remotely an average of 2.5 days per week, employees saved more than $1,700 each year in car maintenance and fuel. Working remotely also saved the employees in the study an average of 2.5 weeks of commute time per year (8 hours a day for 5 days a week).
Finally, the Sun Microsystems study looked at the percentage of each employee’s carbon footprint that came from commuting vs. in-office energy use. They found that commuting made up over 98 percent of a worker’s carbon footprint, with less than 2 percent used to power office equipment. By reducing their commute through part-time remote work, an employee’s energy use for work could be reduced by 5,4000 kilowatt-hours per year.
In 2015, Dell likewise launched a study of its remote workforce. It found that by having employees work from home an average of 9.7 times per month, 75 gallons of gas were saved per person. Across Dell’s entire workforce, that translated into avoiding over 35,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That same year, Xerox estimated that having part of its workforce work remotely helped save enough energy to power 4,000 homes for one year.
More recently, academic researchers published their findings in Nature Climate Change that daily CO2 emissions across the globe decreased by 17 percent as of April 2020 compared to the average in 2019. About half of that change was from decreases in surface transportation. They go on to estimate that 2020’s annual emissions will be between 4 and 7 percent less than the previous year, depending on how long people are asked to stay at home.
If a significant percentage of workers end up ditching their commute by working from home in the long run (even part of the time), this means we could see some real environmental benefits.
Remote work is here to stay
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet subsided, many companies are seeing the benefits of remote work and plan to keep many of their workers remote for the long haul. Even after lockdown has come to an end, companies like Twitter and Nationwide Mutual Insurance plan to allow some or all employees to continue working remotely. A workplace survey by Staples in 2019 found that 85 percent of companies saw productivity increases when they allowed people to work remotely. In addition to cost-saving, companies may now be able to add environmental benefits to the already long list from allowing their workforce to work remotely. That could be important in a world where companies are facing pressure to show they are taking action to make their business practices more environmentally friendly.
Employees are also seeing the benefits of working from home. Surveys show that many would like to continue working remotely, at least part of the time after the pandemic is over. Gallup has been surveying remote workers throughout the pandemic. As of May 22nd, Gallup found that about 62 percent of adults were working remotely in mid-April and that about half said they would prefer to continue to work from home once their local economy reopens.
While remote work isn’t for everyone, many are discovering that they enjoy the benefits of increased flexibility and autonomy that come along with it. Staples’ employee survey from 2019 found that 90 percent of employees thought more flexible work schedules would increase employee morale. Those who worked remotely before the pandemic tend to have higher job satisfaction as well. A survey by Early Bird found that remote workers were 57 percent more likely to be satisfied with their job than other workers and that 75 percent plan to work from home throughout their careers.
Remote work isn’t going anywhere. As employers continue to reap the benefits of higher productivity and engagement, remote workers will also continue to benefit from increased flexibility and autonomy. The long-term shift in how we work is already having massive benefits for workers and employers, but also for the environment.
As remote work continues to play an increasingly important role in a post-COVID-19 world, we may also see benefits from empty parking lots that can now be converted to more productive uses in expensive urban centers. Urban housing costs that were sky-high before the pandemic may fall when workers no longer need to live in expensive job centers to take advantage of the best job opportunities. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has had a terrible toll on human life and economic prospects, we should embrace the lessons learned about the possibility of remote work to provide a brighter future for workers and the environment alike.