Is Working From Home (WFA) Better for the Environment?

One of the hardest things about trying to live an environmentally conscious life is that almost any choice you could possibly has both positive and negative impacts on the environment, and that within each choice multiple options are usually embedded that can have and effect on the environmental impact of your actions.

A trivial example that often struggle with is which plates to use? The plates that are created in the most environmentally friendly manner, handmade ceramic will chip and break, especially in my house, requiring frequent replacement. On the other hands plates made from plastics such as melamine are “unbreakable” and last much longer, but require petrochemicals and processing to be manufactured?

Similar with Work From Home (WFA). Many of us assumed that WFA would be an unquestioned win for the environment.. Less travel. fewer cars on the road, less footprint. Seemed obvious, no?

Well, not so fast. According to a study published by the Harvard Business Review, the record on WFA has been mixed.

With the daily commute all but cancelled during successive Covid-19 lockdowns, many have assumed that WFH will lead to environmental sustainability gains. Indeed, such dramatic changes in mobility, production, and consumption patterns, temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17% in April 2020 compared to peak 2019 levels. But what seemed like a promising trend soon faded away: emissions are now almost back at pre-pandemic levels, even as employees aren’t.

The authors list several employee behaviors that can have a positive or negative influence on the net sustainability impact of the organization.

  • Energy usage. WFA means that individuals are using more electricity and possibly more natural gas for heating than commuting workers do. Home energy usage, as well as the source of the energy have an impact
  • Transportation. While the reduction of commuting caused an initial drop in emissions, that effect has largely disappeared. and emissions are back to prepandemic levels. Workers are taking more, but shorter trips
  • Technology. Which devices companies select for WFH employees can make a major difference. However, the increased need for laptops, tablets, and smartphones has had an environmental cost.
  • Food and Waste. People tend to recycle and compost more at home than they do at companies, which would argue for a positive impact, but the risk of increased electronic waste may offset any gains.

The authors suggest a number of strategies, from thinking about global impacts, to providing supportive policies but perhaps the most important is that companies need to embed a sustainability culture.

To create an environmentally sustainable and climate-friendly culture, organizations need to make sure that sustainability considerations are routinely embedded in every corporate decision across all departments — not just in CSR. This means considering first what are the existing social norms and perceptions for addressing remote (and in-house) employees’ travel, technology, waste, and energy emissions, and then designing ways to decrease these emissions through addressing how people interact with each of these practices.

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