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How green is working from home? When it makes sense to stay out of the office


by Andreas Wilson-Späth

The idea of allowing employees to work from home instead of requiring them to work in a centralised company office every day is not new. Together with more flexible working hours, remote working became a well-established practice in North America and Western Europe in the years following the Second World War.

In recent times it has experienced a considerable upswing, not least because of the perception that it offers distinct environmental benefits. But how much greener is working from home really, and should you consider it as an option for your own business?

Changing attitudes meet new technologies

A growing trend away from process-based staff assessment towards a more outcomes-oriented approach, along with an acknowledgment of the advantages of allowing employees greater freedom in time management, has led many companies to consider homeworking as a viable alternative to full-time office-based jobs.

This marked change in attitude has been encouraged in part  a range of technological innovations—from videoconferencing and smart phones to broadband internet connectivity and cloud-based data sharing — having become more widely accessible and affordable. A number of governments, including those of the UK and the USA have endorsed progressive homeworking policies for civil service workers, and in the UK more than four million employees out of a total workforce of 30 million now usually work from home.

Eco benefits

In a global business environment increasingly affected by concerns over the looming threat of climate change and the need for sustainability, remote working has been touted as an effective measure to significantly reduce corporate as well as personal carbon emissions.

The reason is obvious: for most people, travelling to and from work on a daily basis represents by far the largest portion of their overall greenhouse gas emissions and thus the biggest single environmental impact they have.

An American study suggests that more than 98% of a typical individual’s work-related carbon footprint is accounted for by the CO2 released into the atmosphere during their daily commute.

At a first glance, avoiding these emissions by working at home offers obvious advantages over driving to work every day. But is the equation really quite that simple?

No one-size-fits-all solution

Earlier this year, the UK’s Carbon Trust, a not-for-dividend organisation that promotes a move to a low-carbon economy
among governments, businesses and the public sector, published
a study that investigated the potential environmental benefits of homeworking. The results are very interesting, and while they strictly apply to British conditions, they are certainly relevant to South African companies who are thinking about giving their employees the choice of working remotely.

The study confirms that an average UK employee can save approximately 260 kilograms of CO2e (equivalent carbon dioxide) per year by working from home during two days of every week. It highlights two additional factors that can tip the balance of carbon emissions in the opposite direction, however.

Both the distance individual employees travel to get to work
and the mode of transport they use have important effects. Homeworking was only found to offer a net saving on carbon emissions if the person travels a distance by car that is greater than seven kilometres (one way). If they take the bus or train, the tipping point lies at 11 and 25 kilometres respectively.

So working from home provides the greatest environmental benefits for people who live far away from their place of work. Clearly this has significant implications in the South African context where many people travel large distances to work. If they use public transport or cycle or walk to the office, however, working from home may not save any carbon emissions at all.

The reason for this is that staying at home involves energy usage and carbon emissions that would not occur otherwise. These involve powering computer equipment and other appliances, lighting, as well as heating and cooling requirements, all of which depend on specific behavioural patterns, climate and weather conditions and the energy efficiency of the homes involved.

In the cold British winter months, the Carbon Trust estimates that having to heat the average house for just one additional hour per day would eliminate any carbon savings accrued from avoiding an average daily work commute. The organisation’s Hugh Jones warns that “companies must be careful to ensure that they get the balance right, for if employers do not take account of their individual circumstances, a rebound effect from employees heating inefficient homes may actually lead to an increase in carbon emissions”.

While South Africa is favoured with a much milder climate than the UK, home-cooling, air-conditioning and heating may still make considerable contributions to the net carbon emission balance and may, depending on specific circumstances, tip it in a direction that would favour working in a centralised office over working at home.

Massive potential savings

Having emphasised the importance of carefully considering the specific circumstances under which homeworking policies are implemented, the Carbon Trust’s report leaves no doubt that the practice promises very significant potential benefits to companies.

In combination with hot-desking, in which multiple employees share a single desk, remote working allows businesses to raise desk occupancy while reducing office space, resulting in lower energy consumption, carbon emissions and costs.

For a company with 100 employees, the associated annual savings are estimated at between 270 and 700 kilograms of CO2e per employee and between R1.7 million and R3.4 million. The UK as a whole would stand to lower carbon emissions by over three million tonnes of CO2e per year and costs by over R50 billion annually if an additional four million people worked from home.

The report highlights a case study of a homeworking roll-out implemented by the BT Group, a British telecommunications company, which resulted in a 14 000-tonne CO2e reduction and financial savings of more than R100 000 per full-time homeworker over a period of 12 months.

When telecoms and financial services provider O2 asked its entire head office workforce (bearing 125 mission-critical employees) to work away from the office for just one day in 2012, they saved a cumulative total of 2 000 hours of commuting time and over
12 tonnes of CO2e while reducing electricity and water consumption by 12% and 53%, respectively.

Things to consider in your own business

Employers who want to explore the option of homeworking in their own business should take into consideration a number of issues. While the practice does allow them to greatly rationalise and optimise their office space through, for example, the introduction of hot-desking and a variety of novel technologies, leading to a potential reduction in space, costs, energy consumption and environmental footprint, they need to carefully evaluate the particular circumstances of their workforce.

How far from the office do their employees live? Do they commute in private vehicles or by foot or public transport? Do they live in energy efficient homes? Will homeworking actually result in a net decrease in overall carbon emissions?

Business owners who are intent on making real improvements as opposed to merely ‘green-washing’ their operations cannot simply ask their employees to work from home and ignore whatever additional carbon emissions they may cause while doing so. That would amount to wilfully outsourcing part of their responsibility to a sustainable future.

A thorough survey of all employees, followed by a homeworking trial (perhaps for a particular subsection of staff), during which measurable environmental impacts are monitored and compared to business-as-usual scenarios, are necessary to ascertain whether offering remote working as an option can in fact deliver the eco benefits it promises. If successful, such a trial could then be extended to a larger section of the workforce or the company as a whole. Depending on the circumstances of individual employees, business owners could help to ensure the positive outcome of a work-from-home policy by offering their staff assistance in improving the energy efficiency of their homes. In instances where remote working is not an option, they should consider incentivising the use of public transport. Of course, a number of other positive aspects of remote working should be kept in mind as well, including:

• a reduction in the consumption of petroleum, a valuable, non-renewable natural resource,

• a reduction in unproductive time spent commuting to and from work along with significant savings on money previously spent on paying for transport,

• greater personal freedom, convenience and flexibility for employees, leading to improved employee work-life balance, job satisfaction and staff retention, and

• perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, higher staff productivity, which has been confirmed by several studies of homeworkers.

Employers also need to take into account that working from home is not for everyone, improved ecological footprint or not. Most companies who use remote working offer it as an option for their staff rather than a requirement, and combine homeworking with working in the office on different days depending on job roles, patterns and priorities. During a typical week, part-time homeworkers may thus have regular office days to allow for face-to-face interaction with colleagues as well as work-from-home days on which they benefit from being able to concentrate on tasks without interruptions.

Source: Green Economy Journal Issue 15


 

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