Is Working from Home Better for Our Climate?


Is Working from Home Better for Our Climate?

Homeworking – a blessing for many, a curse for others. And what about for our climate? In the following interview, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute senior researcher Dr. Jan Bieser reveals how homeworking affects our environment and explains how companies can structure remote work to minimize impacts on our climate.

Dr. Bieser, your dissertation examined the impacts of working from home on CO2 emissions. Is there a simple answer to the question of whether homeworking is better for our climate?

As a researcher, I really have to say that it depends. But if homeworking is structured correctly, then yes, it is. If we are mindful of a few things, working from home is better for the climate than conditions were prior to the pandemic, when the majority of workers commuted to their jobs by car five days a week.

If more emphasis is placed on working from home, emissions rise at workers’ residences. Isn’t that counterproductive?

The amount by which homeworking causes household energy consumption to rise depends on a number of different factors such as the home’s heating system and whether other people are present at home. Household electricity consumption in the city of Zurich in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, increased by 6%, but that figure doesn’t include energy used for heating. At the same time, though, 2020 was not a normal year. In addition to working from home, we generally spent more time at home anyway, for instance because restaurants and other establishments were closed part of the time.

One way or another, working from home will probably increase household energy consumption. That’s why it’s important at the same time for companies to scale back their office space to lower building energy consumption. If they do that and commuter traffic decreases at the same time, working from home will definitely contribute to protecting our climate.

Speaking of commuting, do workers’ personal commutes fall within a company’s scope of responsibility in the first place?

Yes, I think they do. After all, companies expect their employees to show up to work. That’s why companies should see to it that their employees’ commutes do not cause inordinate greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the world’s most widely used accounting standard for CO2 emissions, requires companies to measure and report on emissions caused by commuting.

What can companies do to reduce carbon emissions caused by commuting?

The majority of workers in Switzerland commute to work by car. Meanwhile, cars are the mode of transportation that produces the highest CO2 emissions per kilometer. So, if we want to reduce emissions caused by commuting, we principally need to cut back on commuting by car, for instance by working from home. Moreover, a company can encourage its employees to use climate-friendly modes of transportation when they come to work onsite. Finally, a company can also influence its employees’ commutes through the choice of where it locates its operations. That, however, is a long-term decision that depends on many other factors. In a nutshell, people should commute less frequently, and when they do commute, ideally it should be over shorter distances using climate-friendly means of transportation.

How can a company make sure that its employees use ecological means of transportation?

By setting up programs that motivate employees to go to work on foot, by bicycle, or with public transportation and to ditch driving solo to work in a car built to carry four to five passengers. Such programs can take a wide array of forms. For example, a carpooling platform could be set up. Companies can also create financial incentives such as subsidies for bicycles or public transit passes – after all, company cars are often subsidized. This can also contribute to employees’ health and happiness. Finally, a lot can be achieved simply by educating employees about ecological transportation options.

Commuting Data at SIX

SIX, in collaboration with the Myclimate foundation, reviewed its CO2 footprint in autumn 2021 with the aim of developing a sound starting basis for devising a climate strategy in accordance with international scientific standards. We therefore enlarged our database internationally to include commuting data in conformity with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol cited by Jan Bieser. Since commuting to work was still the exception in pandemic-plagued 2021, we decided to use 2019 as the basis for our calculations. We discovered that commuting by our employees accounted for almost a quarter of the SIX Group’s total emissions prior to the pandemic. Our business travel by automobile, rail, plane, and public transport produces around 6,000 tons of CO₂ equivalent. For the sake of comparison, for just one ton of CO₂ emissions, a single person could travel a distance of around 80,000 kilometers by train.[1]

 

[1] Source: Bilder: Wie viel ist eine Tonne CO2? | tagesschau.de

Let’s stay on the subject of commuting, but over longer distances. The employees of SIX flew 90% less in 2020 than they did in 2019. Air traffic in general plummeted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons can companies draw from this?

That’s a good example. I assume that SIX was still able to continue operating its business?

Yes…

This illustrates that many business trips taken prior to the pandemic were unnecessary. Flying, of course, can’t be eschewed altogether. I, too, am of the opinion that personal contact is important. But once a relationship has been established, a lot can be done remotely. We have the tools today for that and know how to use them.

The topic of New Work has been growing evermore present since it became possible to some degree to return to onsite offices. How important is it for companies to introduce New Work concepts, and what role should the climate factor play here?

It is very important for companies to get down to dealing with this matter right away. During the pandemic, we learned that flex work yields a lot of benefits when it’s organized properly. Moreover, employees’ expectations regarding work flexibility have changed a lot. Where can I work from? How autonomously can I choose my work location?

Now is the time for companies to develop suitable work concepts for the future the take business and workers’ needs as well as the needs of the environment into account. Homeworking naturally lends itself as a logical solution. If I don’t force employees to commute to work five days a week, which can be mentally stressful and a considerable drain on time for many by the way, social and environmental aspects would go hand in hand.

If you were the one calling the shots at a company, how would you design the ideal office concept of the future in a way that maximizes climate benefits?

I would take a look at how much office space we can cut without harming workers’ contentment and productivity. It can be done through the use of flexible workspaces and open spaces. What’s also needed is a reservation system for workspaces and lockers for workers’ belongings so that nobody comes to work and finds him or herself without a workspace. Shared co-working spaces are an option in the long term – then everyone can work in an office close to home.

In addition, incentives should be created to encourage employees to use climate-friendly means of transportation when they go to work. Employees and executives have to be supported during the period of transitioning to homeworking because new skill sets will be needed with regard to management, cooperation, and organizing daily work routines.

New Work at SIX

SIX, too, is striving to structure its work model to make it as sustainable as possible. Working from home offices is desired by SIX and will remain a fixture even after the pandemic. Meanwhile, our real estate management unit is trying utilize offices spaces more efficiently wherever possible. For example, SIX Digital Exchange (SDX) employees, who used to work in a separate building, are now stationed in the SIX Group’s main headquarters building. A pilot project with co-working spaces is currently underway in Biel, Switzerland. SIX is also constantly evaluating how offices spaces in locations outside Switzerland can be used more efficiently or downsized.

The design of working spaces is also being rethought, moving away from assigned cubicles and toward shared workspaces and the introduction of an activity-based work model. This means that working spaces in the future will be designed in accordance with each team’s specific needs.

In the event that workers do come into the office onsite, SIX encourages commuting with ecological means of transportation and subsidizes public transit passes for its employees.

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