Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Ganga Shreedhar, Kate Laffan, and Laura Giurge of the London School of Economics explain that contrary to expectations, working from home "is not a clear win for the environment"—but there are three factors companies can consider when trying to establish environmentally sustainable work-from-home (WFH) policies.
The shift to WFH
During the height of the pandemic, the percentage of people WFH in the United States rose from 5% to 37%—and now many employees intend to continue working remotely. And while initial Covid-19 lockdowns changed mobility and reduced emissions by 17% in April 2020, emissions are now almost back to pre-pandemic levels, Shreedhar, Laffan, and Giurge write.
Employee behaviors across these four domains can have a significant effect on the environment:
According to the authors, the impact of WFH on energy use is mixed. For instance, some studies have found a positive effect, while others have identified a neutral or even negative impact on energy use.
"Ultimately, such impacts can vary substantially by an employee's individual characteristics (e.g., awareness, attitudes, family size, wealth), home infrastructure (e.g., building energy ratings, supplier), and even situational factors (e.g., geographic location and season)," the authors write.
When designing WFH policies, such as subsidizing home energy bills for remote employees, companies should consider any potential sustainability impacts from residential energy emissions.
"Reduced commuting when WFH will undoubtedly yield environmental benefits, but there is emerging evidence of rebound effects, including increased non-work travel and more short trips," the authors write.
For instance, a Californian sample of employees who transitioned to WFH during the Covid-19 pandemic found that the decline in vehicle miles travelled was coupled with a 26% increase in the average number of trips taken.
From an individual footprint perspective, each employee's digital behavior takes a toll on the environment. For example, one study suggests that a "typical business" user before the Covid-19 pandemic created 298lbs of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a car—every year, just by sending emails.
However, technology needs have since changed for the average businessperson. For instance, fewer in-person office interactions can often result in an increase in online communication. "Equally problematic is that the primary short-term WFH policy adopted by several companies has been to provide employees with laptops, even at the risk of duplicating devices," the authors write.
During the first Covid-19 lockdown, recycling increased in the United Kingdom, supporting past research that suggested that employees typically adopt more sustainable waste practices in their homes than offices.
"Thus, WFH may have a net positive environmental impact for waste management behaviors, keeping in mind that local services like provision of waste bins for sorting and recycling are important enabling factors," the authors write.
3 ways companies can make WFH more environmentally sustainable
Organizational leaders who want to reduce their workforces' environmental impacts can start by keeping these three considerations in mind when creating WFH policies:
1. Create a culture of environmental sustainability
"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," the authors write.
To accomplish this, companies must first identify existing social norms and perceptions for addressing WFH and in-person employees' travel, technology, waste, and energy emissions. Then, they must create ways to decrease these emissions by focusing on the ways people interact with each of these practices.
Notably, leaders can further influence their organization's sustainability culture by following existing environmental policies themselves.
"Just as leaders need to walk the talk, they also need they also need to let employees choose how they implement the policies offered. Doing so will allow employees to feel supported rather than monitored, and boost rather than erode employees' trust and goodwill," the authors write.
2. Create supportive policies
Organizational leaders should provide remote employees with the right support in each of the outlined domains, the authors write.
Such measures could include policies that encourage employees to make the switch to renewable energy sources at home by providing access to auto switching energy services.
In addition, the authors suggest that employers could provide incentives for active travel to work meetings or offer recycling and safe disposal of duplicate or outdated electronic devices and e-waste.
3. Have a global mindset while acting locally
While some policies will be useful to all employees, environmental footprints will vary substantially between individuals, teams, companies, and industries.
Ultimately, a "one-size-fits-all approach" will likely not be successful. Instead, the authors advise companies to "consider the unique circumstances of their employees as well as the characteristics of their business operations to identify the most relevant behaviors," when they are creating and promoting environmentally sustainable WFH policies.
"As remote work models become increasingly popular, fewer of employees' sustainability impacts are likely to take place under employers' physical roofs, however, they will still occur on their watch," the authors write.
In addition to identifying "specific circumstances and contexts of employees to better understand the dimensions of environmental impacts," the authors note that "it is crucial to embed a culture of sustainability through providing support, policies, and leadership for employees." (Shreedhar et al., Harvard Business Review, 3/7)