Working from home: A step toward a sustainable future?

Could working from home be a step toward a sustainable future?

In our new Synergy column, Cosmos writers explore how we’re dealing with the urgent issues of climate change.

Working from home is possible for many jobs thanks to the internet – provided you have a stable, fast and reliable connection. In fact, I’m writing this from my office – at home.

Today, like many people, I can do my job from the comfort of my house, at local shared office spaces, even a café.

The number of people working remotely ramped up as an unintended result of the COVID-19 pandemic and persists despite the easing of restrictions put in place to control the spread of the disease between 2020 and 2022.

While those constraints have ended, the return to the office hasn’t reverted to its pre-COVID state.

According to the most recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 13% of employed Australians over the age of 18 worked from home most or every day before the pandemic. This rose to 31% by February 2021. By April 2022, it had risen again to 30%.

In September 2023, the Transport Opinion Survey reported that the average working Australian is spending 21% of their working hours at home, down from 27% in March.

The planet might be grateful for the shift to working remotely.

That a transport survey is reporting on WFH habits is an interesting development. Could this new  lifestyle have benefits beyond more time with pets (not that I have any) and not having to pack lunch? Could the end of the work commute – at least for some – help curb one of the great societal challenges that persisted even before the pandemic?

As Earth continues to warm, animals, plants and humans are all under increasing threat. Drier and hotter conditions, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and melting sea ice are all contributing to a climate that is changing faster. And life is not able to keep up.

Human-induced climate change is taking place because of the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). Major CO­2 emitters are fossil fuels. These fossil fuels made up 68% of electricity generation in Australia in 2022 according to government statistics. Transport is a major contributor to Australia’s carbon output.

The planet might be grateful for the shift to working remotely.

How much of a difference does WFH make?

Recent research compared the carbon footprint of workers who do their jobs from home to those working on site and in hybrid employment.

The study, a partnership between Cornell University and Microsoft, showed remote workers can have a 54% lower carbon footprint.

Carbon benefits reduce the more people travel to work. Hybrid workers who work 2-4 days remotely can reduce their carbon footprint 11%-29%. Working from home once a week only cut an individual’s carbon footprint by 2%.

The researchers are quick to say that these carbon cuts aren’t as simple as they first appear in the report – lifestyle factors and energy consumption mean that remote work isn’t yet a zero carbon exercise. Hybrid workers can also engage in non-commute travel for social or recreational travel and may also live further away, causing increased commutes when they do work on site.

While they emphasise that carbon footprints of individuals are not the main driver of emissions, looking at how combined efforts involving not just individuals but sectors of business and entire countries can make an impact.

The business of sustainability

“One of the big advantages of being able to work from home, or in places like co-working spaces, is that people don’t have to commute. That’s a huge advantage on a number of fronts.”

It is a significant cost economically and environmentally to house employees in in a central office.

Libby Sander, an assistant professor at Bond University

So says Libby Sander, an assistant professor at Bond University in Queensland specialising in organisational behaviour.

While there are disadvantages to working from home – loneliness or a sense of removal from the workplace among them – Sander makes a case for businesses to consider making WFH an option where possible.

“One of the biggest drivers of job satisfaction and organisational commitment is autonomy,” Sander says.

“So, the more we can give people control over the way that they work in a way that best suits them individually and the needs that they have, we find that that has better outcomes for the things that employers care about, including satisfaction and commitment.”

She says it’s in the employer’s interest, as well as the interest of the environment.

“It is a significant cost economically and environmentally to house employees in in a central office. On top of that, we’ve got to the cost of commuting that has been well documented in terms of the impacts both personally on individuals for financial cost, mental and physical health, and from an environmental perspective as well.

“So there are significant savings to be made across many areas in terms of sustainability.”

According to Sander, “working from home” and “flexible work” are the most searched for terms by prospective employees.

“I’m not a climate change scientist, but the savings, environmentally, from people not commuting – we have seen in research that’s been done that it has a significant impact on making improvements and making progress in this area.”

A WFH-er speaks

A July 2022 “Taking the Pulse of the Nation” survey revealed 88% of Australian workers would like to work at least part of the week at home. 60% would like hybrid work arrangements. But only 49% indicated that their employers would agree to hybrid work.

Why is there such a push for WFH arrangements among employees?

Ethan is a standards advisor. He has been working remotely for 4 years across a couple of jobs, and a couple of cities.

He says he has been able to move to a different city while continuing his employment thanks to an agreed WFH arrangement.

I was lucky enough to be provided equipment, and I work for a large enough organisation that we have our own IT department.

Ethan, a standards advisor

“The biggest advantage is the flexibility it gives me and my partner,” Ethan tells Cosmos. “I get to live in a different place than my organisation’s main office, which allowed us to move to a different city when my partner was told they would have to move.”

But Ethan also recognises that it makes connecting with colleagues more difficult. “I have to always reach out, because in not there in the office for those ‘water cooler’ moments.”

Sustainability wasn’t a major factor in Ethan’s decision to work from home, “but it helps”.

“Obviously I’m not driving into work every day,” he says. “But I also fly back every year for the work Christmas party. I haven’t done the math, but I always wonder if that cancels out the ‘lost’ greenhouse gas emissions or not.

“On a personal level, I acknowledge that I am very unlikely to be affected by climate change. I do not feel a threat to me personally. But I also think it’s one of our greatest problems, it’s already affecting people around the world, and I think that makes it everybody’s problem.”

He says he thinks workplaces should make working from an option where possible, “but it needs to come with the support from them. I was lucky enough to be provided equipment, and I work for a large enough organisation that we have our own IT department. For other companies, I can see it as just not being possible.”

As I finish this piece in comfy lounge pants to the sound of my neighbour mowing the lawn and the kettle boiling, I think about how lucky I am to be able to work from home.

And, maybe, if it does have a positive impact for the environment, others should be so lucky too.

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