Sustainable snow days: How remote working can reduce environmental impacts for business

As the first snow of 2019 starts to fall across large parts of the UK, many of us will be working from home more than usual. With this in mind, edie outlines how remote working is can help businesses reduce their carbon, energy and waste footprints.

More than 13% of the UK's working population now work remotely either full or part-time, according to the Office for National Statistics

More than 13% of the UK's working population now work remotely either full or part-time, according to the Office for National Statistics

The weather in the UK this week has hardly been comparable with the “polar vortex” which is causing temperatures as low as -30C to take hold across several cities in the north-east of the US. Nonetheless, the Met Office’s continued snow and ice warnings for the UK have spurred dozens of school closures, countless train delays and compelled many businesses to encourage staff to work from home.

While many of us will be glancing at the millimetres of snow (or slush) outside our windows today, wondering why we didn’t just brave the commute, several pieces of research over the past few years have concluded that remote working may actually be a more sustainable option.

Here, edie outlines how remote working has helped businesses of all sizes and sectors to reduce their carbon, energy, waste and water footprints, proving the environmental case for snow days.

Carbon

In 2016, transport overtook power generation as the most carbon-intense sector in the UK for the first time. As renewables and other low-carbon energy sources continue to account for an ever-larger proportion of the nation’s energy mix, transport has been harder to abate, with electric vehicles (EV) and low-carbon fuel adoption within the freight and aviation industry proving particularly slow.

With this in mind – and given that more than 90% of the work-related carbon footprint of the average employee is accounted for by their commute - many companies are turning to transport reduction as a way to reduce their Scope 3 (indirect) emissions.

Global printing and imaging firm Xerox, for example, launched a virtual workforce programme for more than 7,000 of its staff in 2014, adding a further 1,000 employees in 2015. Duties performed by this group of employees include software programming, administrative support and data entry. To date, the company estimates that the move has mitigated the use of 4.6 million tonnes of petrol and diesel.

Similarly, Dell has recorded a 6,700-tonne reduction in its carbon footprint since launching a ‘telecommuting’ scheme in 2014. The scheme equips staff with the conference calling and video calling software and training needed to conduct the majority of their meetings remotely. Dell is hoping to include 50,000 staff in this initiative by 2020, as it strives to reduce its direct emissions by 40%.

Energy

When you’re in the office, decisions regarding the lighting, heating and cooling are likely to be out of your control. And while many firms have turned to behaviour change initiatives to minimise the energy footprint of their buildings, the fact is that we are more likely to carry out “green” behaviours within our own homes than we are in the workplace.

By letting staff work from home, you are placing them in charge of their own energy footprint – which they are more likely to be mindful of, due to personal bills.

Moreover, while working from home will increase an employee’s daily domestic energy consumption by as much as 20%, closing an office for a day will undeniably facilitate a more impactful energy reduction, as offices tend to be larger and contain more energy-hungry equipment.

While quantitative evidence regarding the energy benefits of UK homeworking is yet to emerge, a recent study by the US Energy Information Administration found that 19 million barrels of oil are used to generate electricity for workplaces every day. The organisation estimates that, if every US worker that was able to work remotely part-time did so, 1.75 million of these barrels could be saved.

Waste

A recent survey of 2,000 UK adults found that while most Brits say they are keen to change their behaviour to become more sustainable, the majority don't follow through on their commitments – particularly when they are out and about.

Three in ten throw their plastics into general bins when they are at work or out in public, for example, while half will happily pay for a new plastic bag at the supermarket. Indeed, many single-use products, such as disposable coffee cups, plastic straws and plastic transport cards, have only been created and popularised due to the fast pace of modern living.

As WRAP has rightly pointed out, staff are working from home are more likely to make their own lunch and breakfast than to grab an on-the-go option in plastic packaging, and to eat food in their homes which may otherwise have ended up as food waste. Coffee and tea are less likely to be consumed in paper cups, while employees will be more loathe to pay to print long documents on their personal printer than the office machine.

Sarah George


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