Remote Work and the Environment: Companies and their Sustainability Efforts
Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic introduced us to the work-from-home lifestyle, is the environment better off? It seems like common sense that, yes, the world is less polluted as we work…
Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic introduced us to the work-from-home lifestyle, is the environment better off? It seems like common sense that, yes, the world is less polluted as we work from home. More remote work means that the traditional hour-long commute to the office is dead, right? Well, yes, but also no. In April 2020, after massive shutdowns across the world, global levels of CO2 emissions dropped severely. The change in the way we work had a positive impact on the environment. But, after that initial change, emissions bounced back and then exceeded the all-time high of 2019 emissions. Trends for 2021 and 2022 have also shown a rise in emissions, but remote work has stuck around.
So is remote work making the environment better off? For environmentally-conscious companies, letting employees work from home seems like an easy way to embrace their corporate values. But recent studies by Harvard Business Review indicate that it’s not exactly clear if remote work has actually helped the environment. Let’s dig into some of this research, and how it may play into companies’ work-from-home policies.
Why Should Companies Care about the Environment?
In the past several years, the term “mission-driven” and “corporate social responsibility” have gained major traction in describing growing companies. And it seems like the trend is here to stay. Research indicates that “corporate social responsibility may be especially important for younger workers and female employees,” and lead to higher engagement amongst these groups. As curious as this may seem, caring about more than just the bottom line is actually good for business.
Forbes reports that “[Corporate Social Responsibility] is important to businesses because employees can benefit from working in an inclusive environment and toward a valued social goal. Not only can such a cultural and social focus reduce work-related health problems in the workforce, but it can also boost employee retention, morale and productivity.”
In practice, companies have all sorts of different missions and values. Cotopaxi, an outdoor clothing company, is on a mission to end poverty. This distinction has helped the brand to cut through the noise and see exponential growth in revenue and employee satisfaction. Warby Parker, a glasses company, operates on a buy one, give one model that has created an amazing brand following, especially among young buyers.
But it’s not just small or new brands that are prioritizing corporate social responsibility initiatives. New research indicates that “100 of all the hundreds of thousands of companies in the world have been responsible for 71% of the global GHG emissions.” Big companies have come under public scrutiny for their environmental impact. Several large companies have taken steps to get ahead of the negative press by making big commitments. In July 2020, Apple announced its commitment to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030. CEO Tim Cook said, “Every company should be a part of the fight against climate change, and together with our suppliers and local communities, we’re demonstrating all of the opportunity and equity green innovation can bring.”
Apple is not alone. In fact, 163 of the global 500 companies have made environmental commitments. These companies may span a wide variety of industries and countries, but each has shown the value of corporate social responsibility by joining in the international conversation regarding companies and their responsibility to protect the environment.
The need for corporate social responsibility has led to some amazing progress. Customers and employees alike now expect companies to be aware of their impact on the environment.
Environmental Social and Governance Measurements + Remote Work
So how do companies know what their policies are doing to the environment? Forbes reports, “While CSR impacts internal processes and company culture, Environmental Social and Governance [ESG] is a measurable set of propositions that external partners and investors look at in their evaluation of a company. ESG illustrates a company’s identification and quantification of its risks and opportunities, as well as highlights the ethics of a company.”
Keeping track of environmental social and governance metrics has several benefits.
- Highlighting inefficiencies. When companies begin to examine their environmental social and governance impact, they’re likely to learn a lot. ESG frameworks dive deep into all aspects of a business, which can lead to managers uncovering insights across departments that can be opportunities for more efficient work.
- Attracting Investors. More and more investors are looking toward the ESG framework to help certify potential investments. “ESG frameworks provide an essential layer of discerning information and analysis that can be used to gain a more holistic view of a company. ESG data helps investors and stakeholders better understand an industry or business, determine material risks, and identify opportunities.”
Companies have started reporting their Environmental social and governance metrics– both to internal stakeholders, and the general public. With remote work more prevalent, how can the shift to remote work help companies showcase their environmental impact?
Does Remote Work Improve the Environment?
Harvard Business Review suggests, “To understand the sustainability implications of WFH, companies need to consider a range of environmentally relevant employee behaviors. We highlight four behavioral domains that are particularly important: energy, travel, technology, and waste.” Let’s dive into each of these and discuss how companies and teams can build work-from-home policies that promote sustainability in each area.
With employees working in their own homes, office buildings remain underutilized. However, that energy is still being used, just dispersed in homes. For companies trying to understand the benefit of remote work, this can be a challenge, as each employee’s home and circumstances create variability in their energy usage. The results have been significant. Research indicates a “$6 billion extra in residential electricity expenditures” over the summer of 2020, as more work-from-home employees spent extra to keep their houses cool. In fact, remote work can cost employees up to $600 extra a year in energy costs alone.
With the commute reduced, employees have more time to… travel. Work-from-home life can get repetitive, so now employees report an increase in short trips and other travel that is a direct result of remote work.
While the digital age has moved us past printing paper, there’s an often-overlooked impact of our digital technology use. In fact, a typical business user creates 135kg (298lbs) CO2e (i.e., carbon dioxide equivalent) from sending emails every year. As more and more work is done remotely, companies need to be aware of their digital footprint and take active steps to engage in digital clean-up efforts.
Understanding your Environmental social and governance footprint
Remote works can make ESG reporting efforts more difficult. Now that employees aren’t gathering in the office, teams find it difficult to track their behavior and environmental impacts as the behavior of employees varies so widely while at home.
Companies need to work to make remote work sustainable not only for employees but also for the environment.