The Future of Jobs 2020, a report drafted by the World Economic Forum, highlights a number of ongoing trends, including the expansion of remote working, the acceleration of digitalisation , and automation. According to the WEF, while on the one hand this year’s lockdowns and the global recession caused by Covid-19 bring job insecurity, on the other hand they push companies to change models of work, incentivising smart working practices. The report estimates that 44% of the workforce could potentially work remotely.
However, if in certain cases the transition to remote working seems necessary and convenient, it is advisable to examine the pros and cons from an environmental and social perspective. Questions arise relating to the sense of community and belonging generated between workers who only communicate virtually, the challenges regarding personal wellbeing, and the impact on inequality generated by the transition. Aside from this, it is vital to evaluate the long-term environmental consequences of remote work.

A (supposed) reduction of CO2 emissions

Back in 2018, a study titled Added Value of Flexible Working, commissioned by Regus, analysed the impact of flexible working across sixteen countries. It concluded that the large-scale spread of these practices could reduce carbon dioxide levels by 214 million tonnes per year by 2030. To understand the scale of this effect, consider that to remove the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere we would need to plant 5.5 billion trees over the next ten years.
In fact, working from home causes a series of primary impacts on carbon dioxide emissions. The main changes relate to energy use in buildings, especially as regards heating, cooling, and lighting for homes and offices. Other impacts would be linked to information and communications technology (ICT), that is the number and type of required devices, such as computers and printers. Lifestyle, which includes food choices and recreational activities, is also influenced by remote working. Finally, there would be a decrease in the use of transport, with commutes becoming much less frequent.
Considered from this perspective, working from home would reduce the carbon dioxide emissions caused by means of transport. A decrease in the consumption of takeaway food would, in turn, cut down on food waste and allow for more sustainable food choices, as well as diminishing the consumption of single-use packaging, crockery, napkins, sauce packets, and straws.

Transportation, food, energy use: the risk of a rebound effect

But the issue is not so straightforward. There is no guarantee that smart working practices go hand in hand with environmental sustainability. In fact, there are many more variables to consider. Simple seasonal variations in energy use, or different heating and air-conditioning needs at different latitudes, can make the needle swing in favour of remote work or office work depending on the context.
The risk of a ‘rebound effect’ is very high, especially when public transport or workplace canteens come into play, or when considering different levels of energy efficiency in certain buildings.
Take the case of transport. When working from home, employees do not need to use trains, buses, or metro networks every day. This leads to reduced emission. However, this reduction can be nullified if, once a week, or even once a month, employees choose to travel into the office by car, by themselves. Conversely, this does not hold true if they decide to cycle, or even if a choice is made to go without a car on other work-related or personal journeys.
A similar argument can be made about food. Company canteens and restaurants provide meals to a large amount of workers, with levels of consumption that imply significant economies of scale. Remote working alternatives to this could be less sustainable: daily takeaway meals or home food deliveries are often overpackaged, and such single-use containers and packaging risk having a worse overall environmental impact.
There is also a lot riding on whether remote workers’ homes are powered by renewable or fossil fuel sources. Furthermore, if lighting, heating, and air-conditioning systems in office buildings are not equipped with motion sensors or smart activation systems, there is a risk that these buildings will keep on consuming at a rate of 100% even when only 10% of the workforce is present. In this case, energy use would almost double, as remote workers use their homes’ electricity and heating systems. While the company’s energy use might decrease, the overall environmental impact of its activities would end up increasing. Workplace energy management systems are often more efficient than those in individual homes, where there might be no option to heat a single room instead of the entire home. The same goes for office furniture: there is a risk of excessive production of tables, chairs, and lamps, as people try to recreate their workplace comforts at home.

Triodos Bank

Rethinking work environments, even for remote working

Clearly, not all buildings are the same, and it cannot be argued that remote work or office work is unequivocally more environmentally sustainable. As with so many things, it depends. If employees work in a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified building - the highest possible standard for green buildings - it is very unlikely that individual employees’ homes can compete in terms of efficiency. All the more so if these workplaces are built to be ‘material banks’ that, once decommissioned, can be dismantled into components whose materials can be reused. Triodos Bank, in the Netherlands, is a prime example: this circular building, designed by RAU Architects (see Material Matters, a book written by Thomas Rau and Sabine Oberhuber), is a “cathedral” where wood dominates, held together by 165,312 screws. Its reduced environmental impact is unlikely to be matched by the combined emissions of individuals working from home.
The relationship between smart working practices and circular economy can function of the most sustainable solution is always chosen, for example by avoiding to print and waste paper, or opting for natural light whenever possible. There are great economic opportunities to be had in this sector. The key is to offer remote workers options that fully embrace sustainability and the circular economy.

Bakkerij 3

Bakkerij is a coworking space in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Not only is it located in the former headquarters of the Van Vessem bakery, but the collective spaces destine for use by small entrepreneurs were created through upcycling. Sixty containers, once used to transport cocoa, have been transformed into 54 unique, flexible workspaces.
Alongside the development of more eco-friendly workspaces, the need for sustainable office furniture is on the rise everywhere. Some companies began addressing this gap in the market many years ago. Senator Group, a UK office furnishings company, has been selling 99% and 100% recyclable furniture for years. In 2009, it launched Sustain, a division that collects decommissioned materials, packaging, and unneeded items and recycles or refurbishes them. The company’s facilities, built to measure for 1.5 million pounds, have recycled over 270,000 items, meaning that over 7.5 million kg of waste was saved from being sent to landfill.

Slean Desk as a service2
Slean "Desk as a service"

In a similar vein, French company Slean came up with a business model it calls “desk as a service”, through which companies can subscribe at a fixed, all-inclusive rate and receive however many desks and ergonomic chairs they need. These products, designed and manufactured in France, can be used to create a modular and collaborative office that can be changed according to daily needs (for example, the company suggests “Covid”, “Collaboration”, and “Open Space” setups).
The number of employees and freelances working remotely over the coming years is very likely to keep increasing. To reduce the environmental impact of this way of working, it will be crucial to rethink the function of certain areas in a city, reorganising spaces and companies’ digital infrastructure. Simple yet forward-thinking decisions could have exponential impacts. The environmental footprint that remote working will have in the long term entirely depends on personal and companies’ decisions, and on how these will be incentivised from a circular, sustainable perspective.