In 2020, remote work went from an occasional perk to a way of life around the globe. While working from home (WFH) has often been touted as a sustainable way to work, as more and more people have engaged in it, it’s shown that, like everything else, it has its sustainability pros and cons.
Here are a few of the biggest considerations when it comes to the eco-friendly nature (or lack thereof) of remote work.
Pro: No Commute
The easiest positive effect that comes with remote work is the simple fact that fewer people are commuting. Every gallon of gas that your car burns 24 pounds of CO2 emissions. Naturally, keeping millions of cars off of the roads is a net win for the environment.
Even so, it’s important to point out that the lack of a commute is only true for those working from home. If someone commutes to a remote workspace, such as a coffee shop or a coworking space, they can quickly negate these benefits.
If you want your remote work situation to truly benefit the Earth, make sure to work from home as often as possible or find workplace alternatives that can be reached via walking or biking.
Con: More Electricity Consumption
It’s a well-known fact that remote work often leads to greater productivity. Why? There are obvious reasons, such as being able to focus, having a flexible schedule, and not dealing with distractions from coworkers.
On the more nefarious side, though, remote employees also struggle with boundaries between their professional and personal lives. This inability to unplug from work can add as many as 5 to 7 hours to each workweek.
This doesn’t just pose a problem to the employees themselves. It also means equipment, such as computers and office lights are on and working for that much longer each day — and that doesn’t even address the issue of irresponsible individuals who leave their equipment running and lights blazing around the clock, work or not.
Pro: No Office
Another obvious environmental perk of remote work is the fact that it removes the need for a separately maintained office space for employees.
This doesn’t just help the company save money typically spent on leasing a workspace. Heating, cooling, lights, and other resources required to keep an office up and running are also eliminated, making that part of a business’s overhead that much more sustainable.
Con: More Office Spaces
While the lack of a corporate office is good, this is often be offset by the amount of space occupied by individuals on the homefront throughout the workday.
For instance, it’s often wisely recommended that a remote worker set up a dedicated space in their home to allow for work-life boundaries and enable them to focus when they’re on the job.
However, if this is done by enough remote workers, it can eventually create a plethora of home offices, all of which must be heated, lit, and filled with electronics. When this happens, the collective need for so many individual office spaces has the potential to offset the savings of the eliminated corporate space.
Pro: A Paperless Office
Going paperless was already a huge movement before the coronavirus made remote work the new norm. Now, with employees no longer working near one another, paperless transactions have become commonplace.
This shift from the abundant use of paper and ink to a digital alternative is an easy win for sustainability.
Con: More Waste
Finally, while paper and ink may be saved, the excessive need for electronics when working on the homefront can lead to a greater amount of generated waste.
In particular, the lack of a company facility to collect and properly recycle electronic waste can create a problem. For instance, as employees burn through their company cell phones and laptops, there’s no guarantee that they’ll properly dispose of them. In fact, only a paltry 12.5% of e-waste is properly recycled — a figure that cannot be easily changed when everyone is left to their own devices, all puns aside.
The Pros and Cons of Sustainability in Remote Work
Remote work is not a bad thing for the environment. On the contrary, the sheer reduction in commuting is likely enough to make the entire activity well worth the trouble.
However, that doesn’t mean remote work should be given a free pass, as far as sustainability is concerned. On the contrary, things like e-waste, electricity usage, and alternate commutes should be carefully addressed and studiously attended to. If that can be done, remote work can become a haven of environmental responsibility and a distinct way to move toward a more sustainable future.
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