Remote work has the potential to reduce an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, but only if they follow certain measures at home and don’t have a more socially active life, according to a new study. Researchers from Cornell University and Microsoft looked at remote work in the US and found its benefits aren’t exactly linear.
After spiking during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, US workers’ remote workdays have now stabilized, according to a poll by Gallup. The average worker spends 3.8 days per month working from home, down from 5.8 in 2020 but higher than the 2.14 average in 2019. About half of US workers said they have ever telecommuted for work.
Proponents of remote work argue that it makes sense for workers’ health and the planet. However, there haven’t been many in-depth studies looking into how sustainable remote work is. Now, a new study has looked into this based on five factors — commuting, non-commute travel, energy use, energy efficiency and tech devices.
The researchers worked with a dataset from Microsoft that gave them an inside look into the lives of remote workers. They then compared this with greenhouse gas emissions from office workers and calculated the emission reduction potential of working from home. The findings show it’s not as simple as just working from home.
“Remote work is not zero carbon, and the benefits of hybrid work are not perfectly linear,” study senior author Fengqi You, professor in energy systems engineering at Cornell, said in a news release. “Everybody knows without commuting you save on transportation energy, but there’s always lifestyle effects and many other factors.”
The other side of remote work
Not having to commute to the office might give the impression that remote workers wouldn’t be driving during the day. However, this isn’t actually true, the researchers found. As the number of remote workdays increases, any non-commute travel, such as short car trips to social and recreational activities, becomes a much more significant contributor to emissions.
Working from home can also lead people to use more energy during the workday on things such as internet, computer and air-conditioning, leading to more emissions, the researchers said. Also, when they do need to go into office, hybrid (both remote and onsite) workers tend to commute from farther away that those who work fully onsite.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that working from home doesn’t make sense in terms of reducing emissions. However, the reduction will only be meaningful if workers think twice about their lifestyle choices while being at home, such as reducing their electricity use and using public transportation instead of driving their cars.
“Remote and hybrid work shows great potential for reducing carbon footprint, but what behaviors should these companies and other policy makers be encouraging to maximize the benefits?” Longqi Yang, study author, said in a news release. “The findings suggest organizations should prioritize lifestyle and workplace improvements.”
The study was published in the journal PNAS.