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How sustainable is remote working?

The average person who took part in the VyraHome survey saved about 9 kg of carbon equivalents for every day they worked from home, which is the same as about 59 km in a small petrol car. Although these results were based on the environmental effects of commuting, there are many more angles to measure. Firstly, the power needed to electrify and heat the office is usually quite excessive. Although many offices now operate smart thermostats, it is still quite difficult to predict the right amount of power needed for each corner of the office in advance. This generally leads to wasted power and, as we know by now, the carbon footprint of any power is dependent on the source of the power.

Working remotely can also make you more conscious of waste, especially if it directly influences your pockets. On average, people working in the office are more likely to leave things on and also create food waste. At home, you probably turn things off that you’re not using, including lighting and heating in unoccupied rooms. You’re also more likely to prepare the right amount of food. In the office, we tend to leave unused appliances switched on because we don’t individually feel the economic burden of doing so. If your office has a canteen, they likely produce excess amounts of food which can often end up being discarded, generating emissions from food waste.

However, just because you’re working from home doesn’t guarantee that you will use less electricity. The office could could have higher levels of insulation, more efficient lighting solutions throughout the entire building, and even smart technologies to mitigate irregular energy usage. The energy retailer your business uses could source power from greener origins than your home retailer. In fact, unless your home was built recently or has undergone significant retrofitting, it is likely that it is relatively inefficient in terms of energy consumption in comparison with modern office buildings.

So, if we’re typically reducing office waste and power consumption for our employers by working remotely, should we be subsidised? In short, many of us are already intitled to a small subsidy which you can read about here – the utilities, stationery, and equipment used at home also have an economic cost. However, one of the most interesting findings from the VyraHome project was that the average person saved about €257 per month by working remotely. Additionally, many employers also funded home office development for their employees, which has both economic and environmental costs for the organisaiton. The technology or furniture delivered to your home also has a carbon footprint, which is increased by the increased transport needed to deliver to each individual house rather than to one central location. In fact, this is now counted in Scope 3 emissions for organisations.

So, what’s the solution? Should we stay at home or go back to the office? Although this choice is usually not bestowed upon the individual, the cultural shift to working remotely over the past year has raised some interesting questions about the future of the workplace. On the face of it, working from home seems like the clear winner if we make a few assumptions. Firstly, removing the daily commute (whether it’s via car or public transport) eliminates this source of emissions. If your home has an energy rating comparable to your office, you refuse unnecessary home office supply deliveries, and you don’t tend to waste much, then working remotely is probably ideal. However, if your office is more energy-efficient than your home, or if you decide to change your mode of commuting to car pooling or even walking or cycling (or canuting!), this could swing the pendulum.

In reality, many of us will not get to decide when we return to the office, if ever. To make our working lives more sustainable, we need to avoid waste and be mindful of our behaviour.