Semana Blog

Remote Work and The Environment – The Search for Hybrid Sustainability

remote work and the environment

Energy efficiency is becoming a central issue for companies under pressure from soaring fuel prices and inflation. Remote work seems to be a magic solution to achieve energy consumption reduction objectives. However, many question the true correlation between remote work and the environment, which, when looked at a bit more closely, reveals mixed results.

The Complexity of Measuring the Enviromental Impact of Remote Work

Governments and public agencies are trying to measure the impact of teleworking on energy consumption as comprehensively as possible. Studies are multiplying to attempt to assess the effects of the global shift to hybrid work models, such as this report by researchers from the University of Essex, highlighting the complexity of the task.

In a recent study, Ademe also tried to characterise the rebound effects resulting from remote working. Housing, relocation, new mobility, videoconferencing, equipment, etc. are all factors that need to be taken into account to fully understand the benefits of new hybrid work organisations.

As remote work becomes a permanent part of our lives, how can we make it more sustainable? Under what conditions does this practice lead to a net reduction in our energy consumption? Under what circumstances do the benefits of this practice outweigh its undesirable effects?

Obvious Benefits of Remote Work

The immediate benefits of remote work have been detailed many times. Among them:

  • Commuting: Reduced environmental impacts associated with regular commuting to and from work.
  • Traffic congestion: Telecommuting reduces road traffic during peak commuting times (morning and evening) and can increase the attractiveness of public transport by preventing its saturation during rush hour.
  • Time flexibility: Employees have more flexibility to optimise their departure and arrival times and thus spread out commuting.
  • Building energy consumption: Reducing the amount of office space needed and its associated energy consumption.
  • Quality of life: Without having to worry about long commutes, employees can live further and further away from the office. This helps them benefit from more space, lower cost of living, and an overall better quality of life.

… And their rebound effects

And yet, despite these perceived advantages, many of the impacts of remote work have repercussions that mitigate the potential ecological benefits.

  • Energy consumption at home increases: Heating, air conditioning, lighting, Internet, plugged-in equipment, meal preparation (electricity, gas, oil)…
  • Office energy use only decreases slightly: Despite hosting only half the staff, offices are still heated and lit the same. This dramatically increases consumption per employee.
  • Multiplication of short journeys: Though they no longer suffer long, arduous highway trips, employees are now likely to make many more short local trips in a hub-and-spoke pattern, which can be just as polluting.
  • Relocation: Remote working makes longer home-office distances sustainable and accelerates the relocation of team members. This leads to less frequent but potentially much longer trips!
  • Videoconferencing: The energy consumption and server load required for video conferencing services generate new greenhouse gas emissions
  • The doubling of computer equipment now required both at the office and at home

Solutions for Sustainable Remote Work

Hybrid work is here to stay. So the central question now is how to facilitate a system in which remote work can create a net reduction in carbon footprint in a way that balances its benefits with its undesirable consequences.

As a player in the transformation of work, our mission at Semana requires us to question these issues and the notion of Hybrid Sustainability.

Three key areas of reflection are worth exploring in the relationship between remote work and the environment:

1) Office Energy Efficiency:

Optimising office density with a clearly defined remote work policy drastically reduces building energy consumption by avoiding heating half-empty office floors and duplicating energy consumption.

When half of the employees are working remotely and the other half are scattered across offices and floors, it is difficult for companies to know where they can save money. By focusing on optimising office density, companies can consolidate their workforces and stop overconsumption of energy in empty space. However, this requires knowing who is in the building, where and when.

2) Commuting & Transportation:

The implementation of mobility plans aiming to diagnose the distribution of employees’ means of transport and the associated carbon emissions makes it possible to identify priority areas for optimisation. Typically, the practice of telecommuting in large urban areas, where public transportation is the norm, has a less significant impact on carbon emission reduction linked to commuting than in regions where personal vehicles are the most common mode of transport.

We use (and waste) less energy to heat an office for 50 people than to heat their 50 apartments.

3) Home Energy Efficiency:

This study, conducted in collaboration with the LSE and UCD, takes stock of the simple actions we can take in our daily lives to improve our carbon footprint when teleworking. Among these simple areas of improvements are heating, electricity and the use of technology.

Of course, remote working should not be determined solely by its impact on the environment. Many important factors come into play in the shift to flex office, including social implications, well-being, and health, in addition to employee productivity. But sustainable hybrid work models are possible, thanks to innovative solutions to optimise workplaces and energy consumption.

In addition, it is more accessible nowadays to understand the total environmental impact of an organisation. The simulation tool developed by Watershed, for example, can analyse distances travelled by employees. It provides data such as business trips, and other factors that may contribute to a company’s total carbon footprint. From this baseline, decision makes can enact real change through data-driven decisions, taking into account the unique characteristics of each organisation.

How do you see these energy efficiency goals for your company? What actions have you put in place to improve the “hybrid sustainability” of your organisation?

Get in touch to learn more.