A guide to remote work sustainability: No commute, no office space consuming energy, no takeaway lunches – more of the world is working from home than ever before. Surely, it would be logical to believe that working from home is universally better for the environment.
Maybe not. It also means you are using more energy in your home, more of your own resources and develop habits that are bad for the environment and your wallet. Working from home means you become transport officer and chief procurement officer and senior environmental officer all in one. You become responsible for reducing your carbon footprint and managing your resources. We take a look at why the question of remote work sustainability is so complex. We will give some simple tips as to how you can be more eco-friendly when working from home.
Global variables and the question of remote work sustainability
How sustainable you are when working from home depends on where you are in the world and what time of year it is.
Research by WSP UK found that the environmental impact of UK based remote workers was higher in the winter due to the need for central heating. In comparison, WSP found that home working in the summer saves around 400kg of carbon emissions. That’s the same as 5% of the average British commuter’s annual carbon footprint!
The problem is that during the winter each individual remote worker is heating their whole house. Whilst office buildings are commonly more energy efficient than individual homes as well as having the heating for multiple occupants not just one or two. Heating a single building with multiple occupants has a lower impact than individuals heating their houses even with a commute added in. Compare this to the summer where it makes sustainable sense because energy consumption from heating is far lower. Additionally, the UK homes don’t often have aircon, as a result it is more efficient to work from home in the summer.
This highlights the importance of global variables in the question of sustainable working from home. There are far more layers to the answer. Vehicle emissions are an important variable. In Norway, 40% of cars sold in 2019 were electric, resulting in reduced commuting emissions. In comparison the UK and USA are still highly reliant on petrol and diesel vehicles. And what of the cities that rely on public transport, which is much less polluting than cars for commuting. Each of these individual factors shifts the balance between whether working from home is more sustainable depending on the city, the region and the country.
Air conditioning is another major variable. Many countries including the US, Spain, and those that in hotter climates, tend to rely on cooling for their offices. Aircon consumes more energy than heating, which means cooling workers’ homes has a greater impact than heating them. This means that in aircon-dependent countries, working from home in the winter would be more effective in balancing the sustainability scales.
Type of Energy
Another layer of the puzzle is the kind of energy that is used. Different areas of the world derive energy from very different sources and the environmental impact also varies. For example, compare the clean energy of solar, geothermal and hydropower to that of dirty and emission heavy coal power.
With massive technological improvements being made, including low-emission transport like electric vehicles, which are becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous. Improvements to building efficiency that far outpace innovations for individual homes. Policy advancements that are much better placed in reducing emission levels and protecting our environment. Will there be a point where it’s actually more sustainable to work from the office all the time?
Until that then, the responsibility for sustainable practices falls upon the individual home worker to make decisions regarding energy bills, resource consumption, purchasing and waste management. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reduce your impact and your utility bills no matter where you live.
Tips to improve your remote working sustainability
1 – Dial down the thermostat
Artificial heating and cooling are huge consumers of energy and money in our homes. It can be difficult to conserve energy. When it is too hot and you need aircon or too cold and you need heating. Turning your thermostat down by just 1°C can slash 10% off your heating bills over the winter months. Closing doors and turning down the heating in rooms you aren’t using will lower it even more.
When it’s cold put-on extra layers before reaching to turn on the heating. A slightly cooler working environment can lead to better productivity. Staying still and only moving your fingers contributes to getting cold and achy. Warm up by regularly getting up and moving around, or doing some simple exercises every 30minutes to get the heart pumping and blood flowing to those cold extremities.
In the hot months leave windows open so you can enjoy the breeze and close curtains or blinds to shade from the heating impact of direct sun.
2 – Manage your electricity use
Devices and appliances left on use more power than you might think. Televisions, computers, stereos, printers and shredders all suck up power even when not actively in use. Turn off any devices you don’t need.
Your energy bill and environmental impact can easily increase with a desk full of technology. So be sure you’re doing the following:
- Enable the energy-saving mode on computers, monitors, and printers that have them.
- Turn off devices that aren’t in use.
- Turn off lights you don’t need or when you leave a room.
- Did you know laptops can consume up to 80% less electricity than desktop computers?
- Only fill the kettle with the water that you need. It’ll speed up boiling times and put a dent in your energy use.
- Use low-wattage LED bulbs. They cost more up-front but will save you money and energy in the long run. An average LED bulb lasts 50,000hrs consuming less energy in comparison to an average incandescent bulb that uses more energy over its 750-2,000hrs lifetime.
3 – Printing
Based on remote work sustainability storing files and documents electronically is an easy way to make your work activities more eco-friendly. Reducing, or eliminating, your printing will save you electricity and money on office supplies like printers, paper and highly toxic ink cartridges. Before printing, consider whether it is nescessary to print the document. In most cases, documents can be stored, accessed and reviewed securely online.
If you must print use recycled paper, eco-friendly inks, recycle your cartridges and always print double-sided.
4 – Ethical Purchasing
When we are remote working, we can maximise on the choices available to us. We can look at what we buy and who we buy it from as a good start to being more sustainable when working from home. Also we can choose home-cooked lunches instead of buying plastic-wrapped salads. We can source greener options for our stationery and paper. Also choosing how we furnish and decorate our homes and workspaces in a more sustainable way.
Look at reuse options. If you are getting a desk, look out for second-hand or refurbished furniture first. If that’s not an option. There is a massive selection of furniture made from green materials available including bamboo and reclaimed wood. There are also a huge variety of eco-friendly office supplies to help you reduce waste and reduce your footprint. Including supplies that are recycled, waste-free or biodegradable. Avoid single-use products, especially plastic ones, wherever possible.
With a shift in responsibility for purchasing, there comes a potential shift in attitude. Individuals footing the bills are likely to make more careful decisions about what they spend money on and whether they need something in the first place.
5 – Green Energy
Purchasing electricity is a major outlay for any home worker and commonly their biggest environmental impact. Whilst reducing your energy consumption should come first, another option is switching to a green energy supplier. You could even explore alternative energy sources to power your home office. From solar, wind and heat pumps there are lots of options to choose from
6 – Waste Management
One area was working from home really is more sustainable is waste management. Home workers generate a fraction of the waste that office workers do. According to America’s Environmental Protection Agency the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper, 156 plastic bottles and 500 disposable (and non-recyclable) cups each year.
People in offices have ready access to paper, pens and there is all the additional food and packaging waste that is generated. People at home print less and consume less takeaways.
We are even likely to waste less food at home due to the ease of having homemade meals and the ability to use leftovers. All this is better for your bank balance and the environment.
However, offices tend to make it easy for us to dispose of our waste with clearly marked recycling facilities. Familiarise yourself with your local recycling guidelines. So you know what they take, when they take it and how you need to dispose of specific items.
7 – Make the most of nature
When locating your office (or relocating after reading this) try to pick an area of your home that has lots of natural light. This will reduce the need for artificial light. There is evidence that workers who have views of nature feel less frustrated and experience a boost in productivity. Improve your view by adding a bird-box to a nearby tree or even the outside of your window. Using all these tips should help you based on remote work sustainability criterias.
Every choice we make has an environmental impact and sometimes it’s very difficult to make the right choice. Because there are always positives and negatives. Yet collectively, if we individually adopt the most sustainable work practices, we can make a significant impact to the health of our planet.
Alice Thornton-Smith is a sustainability communications specialist with over 15years working for small charities up to multinational organisations. She has her own blog @ www.alicet-s.com, where she shares resources and offers insight on how to translate the weighty expectation of a sustainable lifestyle into everyday actions. Her messages might be serious, but she knows that it is important to package them in a way that empowers her followers rather than paralysing them to inaction through fear.
Her blog is all about helping people to become more eco and less oh no!
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