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environmental impact of working from home

Is Working From Home a Missed Environmental Opportunity?

In Moments, Air Quality, Sustainability by Scott

Related to UN SDG:
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Just a moment

Have We Missed The Wave? 

Last Saturday was the Spring Equinox, and all around us there are signs of new beginnings and hope - both in nature, and our pandemic-bruised societies. However, I wonder if we missed the opportunity to understand the environmental impact of working from home?
Do you remember the 

Dolphins in Venice 

Do you remember the stories of wildlife returning to suddenly deserted urban locations?

Although the dolphins in Venice story was "fake-news", the canals were clearer than they had been in living memory. Similarly, air quality showed drastic improvements in several global cities, and carbon-emissions fell globally for the first time in decades.

There was a collective holding-of-breath and a shared hope that perhaps we were entering a new normal, where our environment-destroying habits of pointlessly commuting to offices was coming to an end.

Many, including myself, saw the mass migration to working from home as more than just temporary and a sign of the future, indeed, something positive to come from the devastation that was unfolding all around us.

There were many positives to talk about, too - a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, reduced congestions, natural re-wilding of urban places, reduction in plastic waste and pollution, cleaner air, more productivity. The distribution of teams and the breaking of the commute-to-an-office-shackles created new opportunities for diversity to flourish, and new "Dave vs Goliath" competition grew from lockdown entrepreneurs taking on established entities. 

But there were also negatives. Beyond the immediate risk to life, health service collapse and destruction of businesses, there were increases in severe mental health problems, isolation, loneliness, secondary and tertiary economic impacts, poverty, frustration, anger and violence.

Even still, the pendulum was swinging towards a new way of working, where companies could free up the cost of expensive city centre real-estate, they could hire the best people from wherever they might be, and reduce their negative impacts on the environment.

Is Working From Home Good For The Environment? 

The Answer Isn't So Obvious.

The anecdotal evidence was leading us to believe that by cutting out our commute we could have a positive impact on the planet, but the answer isn't that convenient. Whilst the carbon emissions of 1,000s of people commuting to a single office isn't negligible, when they arrive there, the office is optimised to create an environment suitable for 1,000s of people.

Now, if those people all work from home, they need consume heating, light and energy - all of which would have been avoided if they went to the office. Are a thousand homes more energy efficient than a single office that accommodates 1,000 people? With people working from home, what other activities do they do that have negative/positive impacts on the environment?

I simply didn't have the answer, so I spoke with someone who might. Dr Jan Bieser of Zurich university had recently written a paper on this topic, so I got on a call with him to find out more.

Commuting causes a lot of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission [...] This potentially can be saved if we work from home. However, there are also other impacts which you need to consider.
Dr Jan Bieser, Department of Informatics and Sustainability Research, University of Zurich

Is This The Return To The Office?

Instead of a point of inflexion in carbon emissions from commuting, was this all just a pause in our trajectory? Has the love-affair with working from home ("WFH") already vanished for individuals and corporations?

In a recent article in The Times, it would appear that perhaps this could be partly true.

Recent Article In The Times

The natural Spring optimism coupled with the UK's current vaccination progress seems to have stimulated a return to the office, at least for a sizeable proportion of the population.

This shouldn't necessarily be surprise, though. The drudgery and repetitive nature of wake-up-work-go-to-sleep all in the same place have become not just monotonous, but soul destroying for many. Given the opportunity to break from their house arrest to return to the office, many were likely to leap at the chance.

So is this the return to working from an office ("WFO")? Have we lost the opportunity to capitalise on the working from home movement? These questions raise even more questions:

    • Will the desire for workers to return to the office, convince employers to keep the buildings open?
    • Or are employers still keen on the financial, agility, diversity and environmental benefits of distributed workforces?
    • Will employees want to return full time, or just part time, mixing work from home with office work too?
    • Will we see a rise in community hubs where employees can get out of the office, and work amongst others doing the same?
    • Will the ESG trend help convince employers to consider the environmental impact of WFH and WFO?

My Biggest Question

Have we lost the opportunity to have an informed debate about the environmental impact of working from home?

They say that the success of a technology, idea, or startup is a combination of idea, luck and timing, and those that succeed are those that have the right solution at the right time. Is this just a matter of unfortunate timing?

The pandemic lockdowns gave us an ideal opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the impact of our commuting behaviours on the environment, with the potential to change our course significantly. 

But it seems to me that now, with some kind of normality in sight, and a mass return to the office, have we now lost the opportunity. It seems that we just did not have the data, insights or capability to answer the big questions (from health to profit, to environment) at the right time and now, driven by fatigue and financial necessity, we're potentially snapping back into old patterns.

In Summary

Despite the fake-news that floated around the Internet at the beginning of the lockdowns, there seemed to be great hope in the positive environment impact that changes to our working practices could create. However, as we have all experienced wave after wave of fatigue, a potential end is in sight, and many are looking forward to the 'good old days' of working in an office.

My hope is that between these extremes, we will find new, flexible and environmentally beneficial ways to work. I hope this period has given new direction and impetus to understanding these complex questions, and that tomorrow's way of working will embrace the positives of work-force distribution, decentralisation and office-base activities for the benefit of the planet and all of us lucky enough to inhabit her.

I'd love to know your thoughts, your comments or any additional research that you want to share with me on this topic. Leave comment below, or get in touch directly. Before you do, please take a moment to sign up for my newsletter below. When you do, I will plant a tree on your behalf. 🌳 Thank you.

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Scott is an Independent Technology Analyst, Content Writer and Connector of interesting people. Scott is a technologist at heart, with a history of technology innovation and marketing leadership roles. As the founder of this website and several other businesses, he is passionate about helping technology companies communicate their relevance and awesomeness in a way that engages and excites everybody. Get in touch with Scott here or connect with him on LinkedIn. Learn Scott's tips for content marketing, download his free template here..