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Is remote work better for the environment than working in person? Not necessarily| Environment
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Is remote work better for the environment than working in person? Not necessarily| Environment

Shopifys headquarters in Ottawa, Canada.

Stacy Kauk was finishing Shopify’s 2019 sustainability reports when the pandemic struck.

I stopped and thought about what would happen if we closed our offices during Covid, and stayed remote for the long-term. What does this mean to Shopify’s corporate carbon footprint Kauk is the director of the $5m annual sustainability fund for Canadian e-commerce companies.

This is a crucial question that companies might need to ask when they begin to redefine their work models in the wake the pandemic. However, sustainability experts fear that not all companies will be able to answer it.

For the roughly 20%To 40% of employeesMany companies have announced that they won’t allow employees to work from home after a pandemic. at workMinimum of five days a work week Microsoft, Spotify, Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Nationwide insurance, Capital OneAnd CitigroupSome companies have adopted hybrid arrangements that combine remote work with office time. It is possible that hybrid configurations will soon be available. Four TimesAs many people work from home now as they did before Covid.

The lockdown memories of rush hour quiet and dissipated pollution encourage an intuitive assumption that remote work is actually better for the environment. It is not clear how fundamentally changing the business model will affect the climate impact of doing business.

Shopifys headquarters in Ottawa, Canada.
Shopify headquarters is located in Ottawa, Canada. The software company is currently studying the climate impact of long-term remote working. Photograph: Paul McKinnon/Alamy Stock Photo

Rare moment to restart work

Shopify CEO declaredIn May last year, remote work was made permanent. Kauk reports that Shopify’s emissions fell 29% in 2020 after accounting for the energy consumed by its nearly 6,000 employees who work remotely. She explained that remote work is not the norm last year. It was remote work during Covid. What happens when the world reopens?

Watershed, a software company that helps companies track their carbon footprints, was presented with the dilemma by Kauk.

Taylor Francis said that now that we are returning to work, it is this rare opportunity for companies to rethink their working models and keep an eye on carbon. It is more complicated than it seems.

Commuting is a good option. Transportation is the largest contributorUS greenhouse gas emissions, and more than half of them come from personal vehicles. Close to 90%Many people drive to work. Usually, you are the only oneThe daily back-and-forth accounts for almost 30% of the miles American workers drive each year.

It seems like a win for the climate to get rid of millions of workers’ daily commutes. Transport-related carbon dioxide emissions 15% reductionLast year, many people stayed at home.

Early rush hour traffic rolls along I-10 in Phoenix.
Phoenix’s I-10 is jammed during rush hour. Remote working will reduce emissions during daily commutes.Photograph by Ross D Franklin/AP

While commutes may be reduced when workers’ homes are used as offices, it is important to consider what’s happening inside these homes. What is the energy used to heat the air conditioner? Is it coming from clean sources? During lockdown, the average home electricity consumption rose over 20% on weekdays in some parts of the country. According to the International Energy Agency. According to the IEA’s analysis, workers who commute less than four hours each way by using public transport or driving less than four kilometres could actually be responsible for increasing their total emissions by working at home.

The questions multiply as you look further ahead. Many Shopify employees live close to the office, and many of them bike, walk, or take public transport. Remote work will require them to move from urban apartments to sprawling suburban houses, which average a 6% increase in energy use. Three times more energy? Will they purchase cars? Will they be electric? Gas-powered SUVs?

Kauk pointed out that company control is available over what happens at the office. Corporate discretion becomes employee discretion when everyone works remotely.

There’s also the matter of flying. While business travel is important, it’s not the best. Still around 70%Most business leaders believe it will return to pre-pandemic levels. Francis is concerned that companies with distributed workforces may more than make up for the daily commute emissions by flying their staff to quarterly gatherings. Nearly as much CO is released by a round trip flight from Chicago to Los Angeles.2Three months of driving for 10 miles.

Kauk said Shopify will incorporate emissions data it collects in planning employee gatherings.

Hidden climate impacts

Companies are increasingly choosing to allow remote workers to work from home, as this is the best way to help them navigate the new normal.

However, hybrid working could result in a worst-case scenario according to a June study. StudyFrom the Carbon Trust and Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications. The report warned that this split could lead to more energy consumption and more emissions because both offices and homes are fully operational to allow teleworkers to do their jobs.

Watersheds modeling suggests that the same. Francis says that this hybrid world isn’t as good as everyone thinks. I see a lot more companies creating a higher carbon workplace than they did before Covid. He said: Although they are good-intentioned, I believe that common sense is not as important as carbon math.

However, reducing office footprints can help reduce carbon footprints. This comes with some caveats. To achieve a hybrid model, companies close offices or redesign them to accommodate fewer employees. Nearly three quartersFortune 500 CEOs anticipate that they will reduce their office space after the pandemic. Trevor Langdon, president, Green Standards, says that executives may not be aware of the climate costs of downsizing.

Langdon said that furniture waste is often overlooked even by companies that monitor sustainability efforts. Although they may be reporting on energy consumption and reducing paper waste or food waste in the cafeteria, when they close or renovate offices, a dozen floors go to the dump and nobody is recording that environmental impact.

When HootsuiteGreen Standards redesigned its Vancouver office in January. It says it diverted 19 tons of material from landfill and recycled 20%, while donating the remainder to local non-profits. The company provides a platform for employees to purchase used office equipment. This includes monitors and $1,000 desk seats. Prices start at a few hundred dollars.

Mara Mendiluce CEO of The Managing Employees is only one part of the equation for reducing corporate emissions and achieving net zero goals. We Mean Business Coalition.

She sees positives, however, in the fact that businesses were able shift their mindsets during the pandemic to restructure their business in just months. It shows how resilient they can be to major shocks, she said.

Francis hopes that all companies see the potential for positive change. He said that there is a real danger that companies miss out on an opportunity to reduce the carbon curve over time.

This article was corrected on 6 August 2021 to correct an error in Trevor Langdons’ surname.

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