How Remote Work Can Impact Our Fight Against Climate Change
Introduction: The Close Connections Between Seemingly Unrelated Trends 📍
Climate change has become a global topic of conversation that is almost impossible to ignore. A recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans would prioritize protecting the environment over economic growth (1). Globally, a 2019 survey in eight countries across North and South America, as well as Europe, found the majority of respondents consider the current state of the climate to be an “emergency” that required drastic actions (2). But what does this have to do with remote work?
Seemingly unrelated, remote work is emerging as a major opportunity across industries. In the U.S., 37% of workers have telecommuted at least once recently, a 400% increase from 1995 (3). Meanwhile, millennials, now the largest generation in the modern workforce, are more likely to embrace remote work than any generation that came before them (4).
We’ve long believed that distributed teams are the future of the workforce, and that future is beginning to become the present.
Benefits of Remote Work 👩💻👨💻
To anyone paying attention to the news, neither of these trends is necessarily surprising. And yet, too few have made the connection between the two. The need to combat climate change and preferences for working remotely are not just running in parallel tracks; they have the potential to seriously influence each other.
As it turns out, remote work is not just beneficial to prevent burnout or increase workforce flexibility. It also has the potential to be a major factor in the increasing urgency connected with fighting climate change. In this whitepaper, we’ll explore the state of remote work in more depth before connecting the dots between both trends, before a global outlook on the viability of this potential solution.
The State of Remote Work: What the Data Says 📈
It may be a major trend, but we’re still not close to the limit. In 2019, the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics pulled together data points that paint a comprehensive picture of the current state of remote work in the United States (5). Some of the relevant takeaways included:
- Regular work-from-home opportunities have grown by 173% since 2005. That’s 11% faster than the growth of the overall workforce, suggesting an increasing number of employers who begin to see its benefits.
- Compared to five years ago, 40% more employers now offer at least some telecommuting options. However, access still tends to be restricted to full-time, non-unionized workers.
- About half the U.S. workforce, 50% to be exact, holds a job that could work well with at least part-time telecommuting options, but not all of them are actually allowed to work from home at any point.
- Between 80% and 90% of the U.S. workforce say they would like to commute at least part-time. In other words, desire is still outpacing opportunity.
- The average worker who telecommutes does so about 50% of their workweek. According to surveys, that also matches the most common for those 80% to 90% looking to telecommute.
The Desire Matches the Opportunity ⚡️
In other words, the desire clearly matches the opportunity. And it’s in the best interest of employers to follow suit. Global Workplace Analytics calculates that if everyone who has an opportunity and wants to work from home could do so about 50% of the time, the national savings in the United States alone would total about $700 billion a year, split between both employers and employees:
- Businesses would save around $11,000 per year for every employee that telecommutes half of their time.
- Employees now working remotely 50% of the time would save between $2,000 and $7,000 annually, depending on their salary.
This is where we stand today. Telecommuting makes business sense while also satisfying employee preferences. That will be an important context to keep in mind throughout this whitepaper, as we begin to connect the dots to the fight against climate change. 💪
Connecting the Dots: Remote Work and Climate Change 🌞
Telecommuting workers don’t need to use their cars or even public transportation on a daily basis. They use less electricity than they would in the office. Perhaps that’s why, in its calculations, Global Workplace Analytics concluded that the benefits of telecommuting are far more than just financial.
In fact, under the same scenario mentioned above, with all able and willing U.S. employees actually working remotely for 50% of the time,
The greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road.
To clarify, that’s a labor force of about 8.3 million workers in the state’s private sector alone (6). Considering the fact that transportation is the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions today according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that’s a significant impact achieved through relatively simple steps.
A Case Study 🔖
A 2015 case study of Xerox highlighted by the Society of Human Research Management (SHRM) played out this scenario in reality (7). About 8,000 of its 27,000 total employees work remotely full-time. Per year, these 8,000 teleworkers drive 92 million fewer miles, saving 4.6 million gallons of gas and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 41,000 metric tons every year.
Put differently: environmental benefits do and should play a crucial role in the decision to offer telecommuting opportunities. The monetary savings are just a piece of the puzzle; fewer miles on the road equates to fewer gallons of gasoline and, as a result, lower greenhouse gas output for any company looking to implement similar practices.
Estimating the Environmental Impact of Remote Work ♻️
In 2017, the remote working job marketplace FlexJobs partnered with Global Workforce Analytics to estimate the environmental impact of the 3.9 million workers who perform their work remotely every year. Its conclusions were staggering (8):
- 530 million fewer vehicle trips, leading to 7.8 billion fewer miles traveled in vehicles.
- 3 million tons of total greenhouse gases avoided as a result of fewer trips.
- $498 million fewer costs related to traffic accidents.
- Almost $1 billion in oil savings from less gasoline needed.
- About 83 million total air quality savings, measured in pounds per year.
The carbon savings from these 3.9 million remote workers, meanwhile, is the equivalent to planting 91.9 million trees or almost 540,000 homes powered by electricity for a full year.
What if… 🤔
The impact becomes even more drastic when it gets into hypotheticals. The above estimates are based on the 2017 numbers of 3.9 million remote workers in the United States. It’s easy to extrapolate what those numbers would be based on the statistics quoted in the first section:
- As of 2019, about 130 million people work full-time in the U.S. alone (9).
- If 50% hold jobs viable to telecommuting, there could be around 65 million full-time telecommuting jobs in the U.S.
- Given that 85% (the mean between 80% and 90%) are willing to switch to telecommuting, it would leave a remote workforce of around 55 million people.
- And if those 55 million people would work remotely about 50% of the time, the full-time equivalent of remote work would be about 27.5 million people.
Even that conservative estimate (it doesn’t consider any full-time remote work or part-time workers not counted in the original 130 million) is a 7x multiplier compared to the 3.9 million in the 2017 study quoted above. That means the greenhouse gases avoided would jump to 21 million tons, while air quality savings would escalate to 581 million pounds.
With these numbers in mind, it becomes impossible to not consider the drastic impact remote working can make on climate change. It has the potential to take billions of toxic gases out of the air, improving the environmental impact (not to mention the monetary savings) by the billions.
Can Global Remote Work Become a Viable Climate Change Solution? 🌎
So far, we’ve considered both real numbers and hypotheticals. The real numbers are undeniable; though estimates, they provide a clear picture of the real-time environmental benefit that comes with an emphasis on remote work. The hypothetical numbers, on the other hand, are just that; potential impact estimates that may or may not actually be viable.
The potential growth of remote work is largely dependent on the ability within the workforce to complete their tasks, accomplish their work, and collaborate in the process to the same degree of effectiveness as if they’d be available in-person. That automatically eliminates industries and professions in which that is impossible, such as surgeons, from the equation. It does leave a large gap in service and technology-based industries, where transferring that work would be relatively straightforward.
Importance of the Internet 📱
Even within that realm, though, a reliable and fast connection to the internet is perhaps the most important resource on which success depends. Speed is increasingly available; in fact, according to Nielsen’s Law of Bandwidth, a high-end user’s internet bandwidth grows an average of 50% every year (10). Data tracked between 1983 and 2019 neatly fits within that growth line.
Of course, that speed increase only matters if access to the internet exists in the first place. Across the globe, more than 4.5 billion people are active internet users as of January 2020, encompassing more than 59% of the worldwide population (11).
However, that data is still disproportionally distributed according to a country’s economic development level. According to the International Telecommunications Union (12),
- 86.6% of residents in developed countries actively used the internet in 2019.
- 47% of residents in developing countries actively used the internet in 2019.
- 19% of residents in the world’s least developed countries actively used the internet in 2019.
It is important to note here that even these numbers represent a positive trend. Just five years earlier, in 2014, only 32% of developing nations and 6% of the world’s least developed countries had active access to internet services. As these numbers continue to grow, the possibilities of remote work even in countries beyond the United States and Europe become increasingly viable.
Positive Predictions 👍
It’s difficult to overstate the global impact on carbon emissions, should most of the world’s countries begin to emphasize remote work. Even estimating just 10% of the world’s internet users moving to telecommute opportunities would result in 450 million remote workers across the world. That’s a 20x multiplier compared to the hypothetical calculations in the previous chapter; the result would be 420 million tons fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere every year.
At this point, we need to re-emphasize that we’re completely in the realm of speculation and hypotheticals. Still, even a quick look at that theoretical impact of remote work begins to build a picture of the possibilities that moving to a telecommuting-based economy could truly bring.
Closing the Gap Between Remote Work and Physical Work 📲
Technology makes remote work increasingly viable on a global stage. But it also has to play a role in ensuring its success, both among companies looking to implement it and workers looking to leverage it.
There’s an undoubted benefit to working at an office or other central environments. Collaboration tends to be more natural, and tasks are more easily distributed via conversations and meetings. Any long-term effort to go remote, even if only partially, has to include a close look at how it’s possible to close the gap that taking out these in-person interactions would otherwise leave behind.
Done right, productivity doesn’t suffer during remote work. It is more flexible, less time-bound, but also inherently more individual. Success means finding solutions that help you leverage those benefits while overcoming its inherent shortcomings. Simply moving existing processes online cannot be a solution, especially when these processes have not been designed for that environment.