The new normal
Working from Home (WFH) has no doubt been a hot topic since the pandemic began, which I’m sure we’re all too familiar with. Many of us abruptly shifted to remote working back in March last year, and there is a huge range of attitudes toward remote vs office employee life. One topic of interest that has popped up is the environmental pros and cons of WFH, with the many believing that cutting out commuting and switching off workplace heating makes it the ‘greener’ choice. While WFH boasts a range of other social and economic benefits, this blog will take a look at whether it is truly a more eco-friendly style of working. Is the assumption that WFH is the sustainable choice as straightforward as it seems?
Home or office: which is more sustainable?
There are some significant environmental upsides to WFH which many will have heard of. More than just curbing emissions from commuting, there is also a significant amount of reduced consumption associated with working from home. Reducing plastic by cooking your lunch and using reusable cutlery is one example. Also, be honest – do you print the same at the office as you do at home?
Overall, you may assume that WFH is more energy-efficient, because of the large amount of energy it takes to keep large corporate offices warm. However, research by WSP UK has shown that WFH is only more carbon-efficient in the Summer months. This is because when we’re all warming up our homes for the winter, the energy consumed from household to household is actually higher than that of the office. After all, most UK heating systems heat the entire house rather than just your working space, which produces emissions that significantly outweigh those produced by the average commute. Therefore, WFH all-year-round as most legal professionals have been doing since COVID, actually is said to generate a carbon footprint more than 80% higher than that of a full-time office employee. However, this estimate is based on a model where employees live alone and doesn’t account for those of us who share our heating with partners, siblings or flat-mates also working at home. So, take these figures with a pinch of salt.
However, according to the same report, WFH is more environmentally beneficial during the Summer because while offices often have an AC system, many UK homes do not. This is actually a win for the environment as AC actually consumes more energy than heating, accounting for 15% of emissions in the United States. The caveat is that our productivity can wilt in the heat, according to some studies, but perhaps working from home allows us to dress more weather-appropriate to counteract foggy summer brains. Overall, the research concludes that WFH during the sunnier months saves around 400kg of carbon emissions. This equates to 5% of an average British commuter’s annual carbon footprint.
Making WFH more sustainable
Regardless of the season, there are still ways that we can mitigate our environmental impact when working from home.
Many companies include a line at the bottom of emails encouraging recipients to consider the environmental impact of printing that correspondence. But emails themselves, like all internet usage, also have a carbon footprint. There has been a lot of hype around the environmental impact of email over the recent years, with reports suggesting that the world’s email usage is equivalent to having an extra 7 million cars on the road. That’s not to mention the impact of the pandemic, with many of us sending more emails to account for being unable to stop over for quick office chats here and there. However, in the grand scheme of things, the carbon footprint of emails is a tiny percentage of global emissions. So, if you don’t think that extra ‘thank you’ is needed, you might want to think twice before sending it. But remember, sending an email is much more environmentally friendly than sending a letter – so don’t sweat it too much! Other ways you can reduce your emissions produced by internet usage include blurring your Zoom background, using the tree-planting Ecosia as your default search engine and using energy-saving settings on your devices. Non-internet related good habits include reducing printing, recycling your old tech if in need of an upgrade and trying to use eco-friendly stationary.
Furthermore, another way to lower your carbon footprint is by layering up rather than switching on the heating. When you don’t have any video calls, why not wrap up in your favourite robe and save yourself some money on your bill all while doing your bit for the environment? As well as managing your heating, managing your diet is also one of the most significant aspects of reducing your carbon footprint. Meat and dairy contribute to almost 15% of global emissions, with beef being one of the biggest culprits. Working from home saves time from the pains of commuting, which frees up your availability to cook delicious vegan or vegetarian meals. This can be incorporated into working life by sharing your favourite recipes with colleagues and having virtual cooking classes to reconnect.
All of these tips, amongst countless others, are habits that are good for the environment and often good for your bank account too. So, while it would be ideal for us to exclusively work from home during the summer months, the pandemic has shown us that sometimes we can’t be so picky. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of what you can do both at home and in the office to create more sustainable working – and lifestyle – habits. My personal favourite piece of advice was from David Attenborough, who so eloquently summarises many of the best sustainable habits with the tip:
“Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste paper, don’t waste food. Live the way you want to live but just don’t waste.”