Working from home has not only many benefits for employees, freelancers and companies, there are also plenty of environmental impacts of remote work. Especially in a time where climate change is more present than ever before, we need to start thinking about what each and every single one of us can improve. This also includes finding more sustainable ways to work.
Remote work is an often mentioned potential solution in this discussion. Let’s see how working online can really help the environment or if it might even be harmful.
Positive Environmental Impacts of Remote Work
Let’s start with the positive environmental impacts of remote work. Luckily, there are quite a few significant ones:
1. Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Skipping the commute to work is a huge advantage of remote work for many people. If you are able to work from home, this doesn’t only save you plenty of time but also money for public transport or gas.
On top of that, telecommuters also reduce their carbon footprint. It’s very simple: Fewer commutes – less greenhouse gas emissions.
Global Workforce Analytics estimates that if everyone who works in an office, would work from home just half of the week, this reduces the emissions by 54 million tons per year!
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA came from transportation in 2017: “The largest sources of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions include passenger cars and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans.”
And here’s another mind-blowing number: Current remote workers in the USA avoid emitting 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses every year. If you wanted to offset the same level of emissions, you would have to plant 91 million trees.
2. Reduced Consumption of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels play an essential role in climate change. We don’t only use them for heat or electricity, but also for transportation. In fact, 90% of the fuel for transport is derived from petroleum products.
Just imagine how much gasoline a single person consumes on a 30 minutes’ drive to work. Twice a day. Five times a week.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, US-Americans consumed nearly 392 million gallons of gasoline every single day in 2017.
Now imagine if only half of those commuters would be able to work from home every other day. That’s a huge difference!
4. Better Air Quality
Another no-brainer: if we manage to reduce the gas emissions due to transportation to work every day, we also get better air quality. Just think of megacities, such as Beijing or Delhi which are struggling with air pollution on a daily basis.
Air pollution kills more people than HIV, malaria, and influenza combined. To be precise: Every year, more than 3.3 million people die of the consequences of bad air quality.
Highway vehicles alone contribute almost 35% of total nitrogen dioxide. These emissions are known to aggravate respiratory diseases, such as asthma or infections.
According to the before-mentioned U.S. Employee Workforce Report, the air quality savings amount to 83 million lbs. per year thanks to the current 3.9 million (part-time) remote workers.
To more vehicles we get off the road, the better our environment and our own health.
5. Reduced Use of Paper
Let’s be honest: How often do we print out documents in the office that we don’t really need as a printed version? If we worked at home and needed to use our own printer, we would probably be more economic about it.
Plus, when working remotely we are more or less forced to share files with team members online. And it works! There is no need to print everything, copy it or label it.
Working online eliminates the dispose of 247 trillion sheets of paper every year.
6. Reduced Consumption of Plastic
Yes, you can most certainly use disposable plastic products even when you work from home. However, the temptation and convenience factor is much bigger when working from an office.
Just think of the coffee to go on your way to work, the packed lunch from the supermarket, or the fast-food packages and straws at the local eatery.
Obviously, it’s hard to come up with reliable numbers to prove the amount of additional plastic waste when working in an office. But I think it only makes sense that remote workers are more likely to use a proper coffee pot, reusable dishware and prepare their meals without further packaging.
This decreases the number of disposable cups and utensils which are big contributing factors to the world’s plastic crisis.
3. Reduced Impact on Infrastructure
This one probably depends on the region you live in. But I think it’s safe to say that the transportation infrastructure in many cities falls short of the increasing demand.
During peak commute times, the streets are often jam-packed. This results in even more gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, extensive traffic increases the amount and intensity of damage done to highways and streets. This results in a higher demand for repairs and expansions.
7. Reduced Energy Consumption
Offices typically consume more energy than if their employees worked from home. Just think of the huge printing stations or computers being constantly on stand-by.
Another reason for that is that people tend to act less environmentally conscious when being in an office. Switching off the light when you leave the bathroom is just less appealing when you don’t have to pay for the electricity bill.
And how about heating and cooling? Although this consumes an incredible amount of energy, many people tend to open windows for fresh air without turning the air conditioning or heater off while doing so.
Sun Microsystems reports that the energy consumption in offices is nearly twice as high. The study also shows that every person, who works from home, reduces the energy consumption by at least 5,400 kWh annually.
Companies, such as Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com, Tumblr, WooCommerce, etc.), which operate fully distributed, don’t have any offices at all and they are thriving!
8. Stimulation of Small Town Development
The main reason for living in a big city for the majority of the population is probably better career opportunities. They try to cut down on daily commute time and therefore put up with higher rental and living costs. Many might not even like the big city life.
If these people get the chance to work remotely, I’m very positive many of them would leave the city behind and either move to a more affordable suburban or rural areas. As a matter of fact, at least 27% of Americans wish they could live in a rural area but have to stay in the big city due to work.
After all, it’s not only cheaper, less noise and light-polluted, and has a better air quality, it may also be a better place for kids to grow up.
Small towns, which are suffering from a high fluctuation of younger generations, get the chance to develop.
Large cities have the opportunity to become greener and less polluted. After all, urbanization contributes to up to 5% of all greenhouse emissions with deforestation being one of the reasons.
This kind of decentralization improves the quality of life for everyone.
Negative Environmental Impacts of Remote Work
I always like to see both sides of a subject – the good and the bad. That’s why I also tried to find the negative environmental impacts of remote work. But to be honest, I failed. I simply couldn’t come up with any downsides.
Sure there are disadvantages of remote work in general, such as loneliness or productivity (although there are plenty of ways to make friends when working remotely and tons of productivity tips for remote workers).
But negative impacts that are affecting the environment? I honestly don’t think there is one.
Many people might assume that remote workers need more energy when working from home in comparison to office work. However, this is not the case. The mentioned Sun Microsystems study proves that it is quite the opposite: Offices consume almost twice as much energy.
Work from home professionals are simply more aware of their consumption. That means they buy energy-saving devices, switch lights and electronics off when they don’t need them and are more conscious when regulating the heater or air conditioning.
Environmental Impacts of Remote Work While Traveling
The before-mentioned facts are true for remote workers, who mainly work from home. But what about digital nomads? People, who work online while traveling the world? After all, one of the main reasons why people want to work out of the office is because they want to travel more.
Well, there is indeed a difference.
For one, digital nomads travel. The majority of nomads might be very environmentally aware and try their best to reduce any type of negative impact on the environment. But I can’t deny that many digital nomads fly more or less frequently. It’s no news that flying has a large carbon footprint.
A second argument is that many digital nomads use coworking spaces to socialize, network and simply because they often don’t have any other place to get their work done while traveling. While these shared offices come with many advantages, they still remain offices and therefore come with the same negative impacts on the environment as normal offices.
BUT, speaking from my own experience here, most of the digital nomads I know are extremely aware of current environmental issues. It seems like it’s almost part of the nomad lifestyle to come closer to nature and try your best to avoid negative impacts:
- That’s why many (obviously not all) try to avoid eating meat or animal products in general, which is proven to be a significant contributing factor to global warming.
- They also often use services such as Gold Standard or Green-e. Here you can calculate your flights’ emissions and offset them by investing in projects such as renewable energy projects.
- Also many live fairly minimalistic in terms of clothing or physical goods because you can only bring so much with you while traveling. This reduces consumption and general waste a lot.
To sum up, digital nomads might not be on the same level as work-from-home professionals when it comes to environmental impacts but they are often well aware of that and try their best to make up for it.
Remote Work for the Rescue!
Will remote work alone stop climate change? Surely not. It obviously needs much more than that.
But as you can see, there are many positive environmental impacts of remote work when you work from home:
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
- Reduced consumption of fossil fuels
- Better air quality
- Reduced use of paper
- Reduced consumption of plastic
- Reduced energy consumption
- Reduced impact of infrastructure
- Stimulation of small-town development
On the contrary, there is not a single scientifically proven negative impact of remote work on the environment.
That means, remote work does not only have many benefits for companies and workers, it can also have a positive impact on the climate crisis. This is definitely reason enough to work on ways to implement more remote work in companies.
There is no need to force all office workers to work from home 100% of their time. But when we only give half of the workforce the opportunity to work remotely every other day, the positive environmental impact would be demonstrably huge!