Remote working has long been touted as one way to reduce the environmental impact of the corporate world. But now that it’s happening en masse, is it really making much of a difference? And how can businesses measure it anyway?
Employees might no longer be making their carbon-intensive commutes, but many of their ‘saved’ emissions are simply shifting from the office to the home. In some cases, they have increased their carbon footprints because they use more energy less efficiently. Firms, meanwhile, are having to respond by turning to sustainable energy initiatives that allow them to report those dispersed emissions accurately – and reduce them where they can.
How hybrid working compounds the challenge
A short-term priority for most firms is to reduce the operating costs of their underused premises. Even once global vaccination programs reach more of the working population and restrictions ease, few organizations and employees expect to return to a full working week at the office.
January 2021 analysis by commercial property firm Cushman & Wakefield supports this view. It predicts that hybrid working will double going forward, and office tenants will seek greater flexibility in terms of space, amenities and leasing terms.
These changing working models have already come at a significant cost to businesses. Research suggests that major cities like New York and London have borne the brunt of the shift to remote working. In London, empty desks are set to cost firms almost £13bn, according to estimates by office share start-up Space Three Two.
According to Matt Lucas, Vice President of Global Energy Management at Sodexo, businesses are rapidly adopting energy-saving measures in order to cut costs and move towards carbon net zero status. He says firms should start with a data driven approach to focus on quick wins such as building optimization, which will help improve both the control and efficiency of their building management system (BMS), heating, ventilation and air conditioning assets.
“Firms can also invest in other quick win technologies such as LED lighting, which provides superior light output for a significantly reduced cost when compared to traditional fluorescent lighting,” Lucas says. “Renewable onsite generation coupled with battery storage is another good option to explore, and one that can also be fully funded through a power purchase agreement,” he says. “These can often be cash-positive investments from day one.”
Why firms are racing to measure dispersed emissions
More than a quarter of businesses (27%) expect remote working to reduce their carbon footprint by more than 50%, according to CapGemini analysis.
But research by the IEA suggests that it only works if the employee’s commute was longer than 6km; any shorter, and the higher emissions generated by working from home could offset the savings. The sustainability of each individual’s set-up at home varies according to geography and season, but the IEA also estimates that a day working from home could increase household energy consumption by between 7% and 23% compared with a day at the office.
Under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol standards for tracking emissions, remote working is an optional disclosure. So far, many firms have not included its emissions in their overall sustainability reporting – probably because of two things: the lack of a clear methodology for calculating emissions, and the problem of how to collect the data.
A 2020 homeworking emissions whitepaper suggests that this will have to change. The report warns that in 2020, UK firms were at risk of collectively under-reporting an estimated 470,000 tonnes of carbon because of employees’ unaccounted-for energy use at home. “Corporates,” the report says, “will be expected to fully and robustly account for the impacts of increased homeworking.”
Many businesses are now looking at how to redefine the sustainability impact of hybrid working practices where employees split their working week between the office, home and/or anywhere else. Increasingly, this will mean that their employees’ impact is included in their overall sustainability reporting – and firms will have to find innovative ways to reduce or offset that impact.
Who is taking responsibility to go green
Work is already under way. In the US, automation-tool company Zapier is among the first fully remote companies to purchase carbon offsets to compensate for its employees’ environmental footprints.
And although remote-working emissions are currently excluded from NatWest’s footprint calculations, the bank is assessing the extent of its displaced emissions and has built a carbon calculator to help its remote employees to understand and minimize their environmental impact. Renewable energy platform Arcadia, meanwhile, is now offering clean energy as a work-from-home benefit, and even subsidizes employees’ higher monthly bills.
That’s what some businesses are doing, but we as individuals can also help by minimizing the impact of our energy usage at home, says Sodexo’s Matt Lucas. “Video calls have been reported to produce 25 times more carbon emissions than voice-only calls, for example,” he says. “So, ask yourself: ‘Is video really needed for your conversation?’”
Without a dedicated energy manager, or someone whose job is to oversee energy efficiency objectives, companies may struggle to measure their energy and carbon impact accurately in order to fully bring their employees on board. However, even if it is the individual or occupier’s responsibility to reduce emissions in the home, employers should still have a duty of care to promote energy behavioral change stresses Lucas. He gives an example: “The business can provide an energy-efficient laptop, but then rely on the employee to power it down correctly when not in use.”
Why carbon can’t be delegated to employees
Tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook have already announced that more of their employees will be able to work from home permanently, and firms in more traditional sectors have also signaled similar plans. This raises questions about the long-term need to track – and curb – emissions in a hybrid working environment.
With occupancy down, employers will need to rethink their offices. This could mean moving to smaller, cheaper physical locations in order to cut costs, or it might mean redesigning the office environment so that employees who are on site, working remotely or a combination of the two can connect effectively. When they make these kinds of decisions, businesses will want to weigh up the savings with the impacts on employee comfort, health and wellbeing, says Lucas.
Covid-19 has rushed many businesses into these changes, whilst there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how new working models will shape our offices of the future. But some firms are already leading the way with new models of corporate sustainability and accepting that they can’t delegate their carbon footprints to their employees.
For insights and actionable strategies that will help you accelerate change and operate with purpose, download our report, Sustainability Shifts from Business Imperative to Mission Critical.
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