Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become a fixture of the labor landscape. Initially used as a way to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 infection, it quickly became a popular feature that many employees wanted to see in their jobs, whether current or new. While the official end of the pandemic has seen changes to who can work remotely and when, almost 13% of all employed full-time workers are fully remote, with almost a third working in some kind of hybrid model. Still, the vast majority of workers remain in person.
A new study published by researchers explores a perhaps unintended or overlooked effect of remote work: the carbon savings it can afford, in certain scenarios. The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Some studies have hinted at the environmental benefit of telecommuting, such as the role of virtual options for large in person gatherings like conferences. But how exactly do individual people working remotely contribute a carbon savings in a similar way? The key ingredient is what remote work can save on harmful factors, like transportation needs using fossil fuel burning means. Researchers found that remote workers and hybrid workers (working remotely 2 to 4 days a week, can reduce their carbon footprint by over 50% and up to a third, respectively. People working remotely just once a week have almost no impact on their carbon footprint.
But researchers also highlight that the devil is in the details, and that transportation is only on factor that can affect the carbon footprint of remote worker, particularly factors that can shape both employer policies around work as well as individual lifestyle choices. When modeling what affects the carbon footprint of a worker, researchers also examined factors such as how far a hybrid worker travels compared to a non-hybrid worker, how much energy remote workers use, how much energy a worker uses at home, and how a work office building is set up.
To that end, researchers suggest that boosting public transportation and encouraging companies to minimize office space that would have otherwise been dedicated to remote work, enabling us to get the most environmental benefit from remote work.