Is hybrid work worse for the planet?
Last year I looked at the environmental impact of remote work after some studies looked at whether the practice is as environmentally friendly as we might instinctively think. The gist of the studies was that while we travel less, which is good, we also tend to duplicate equipment and buy bigger houses to house home offices, which is bad.
These findings are partly due to research from the University of Sussex, and a second team from the university has returned to the issue with a new study that takes a similarly pessimistic line. The researchers suggest that hybrid working might do little to actually reduce carbon emissions, as remote workers typically travel more than their in-office counterparts.
The researchers looked at travel patterns before the pandemic and found that teleworkers (in England) typically traveled further each week, despite making fewer journeys than those working in offices. This somewhat counter-intuitive finding is because when we work remotely we also tend to live farther from the office, so each trip to the office adds up to a larger sum than those who live closer to the office every day to travel. Additionally, when working remotely, we seem to be doing more side trips, e.g. B. in cafes or shops.
This was especially true for households in which at least one person was working remotely, which the researchers believe shows that the presence of teleworkers at home also leads to more travel among other household members.
“Our study finds that remote work can have unintended consequences that offset the potential travel and carbon savings. If you only commute a few days a week, you can choose to live further away from your job,” the researchers explain. “And if you work from home during the day, you can take extra trips – maybe to do some shopping or just get out of the house. We need to consider these possibilities when estimating the contribution of remote work to carbon targets.”
With the Covid pandemic not only seeing people working from home on an unprecedented scale, but also sharply reducing emissions and air pollution, perhaps the logical expectation was that teleworking would be good for the planet.
The research found that remote work had a negligible impact on emissions from travel over 15 years before the pandemic, as people who worked remotely full-time generally traveled slightly less than their in-office counterparts, those who only did so in Part-time did significantly more traveled.
The findings came after analyzing data from the English National Travel Survey, which included data on 3.6 million trips taken by around 270,000 people between 2005 and 2019.
Worse for the planet
The data showed that people who worked from home a few times a week typically lived over 4 miles further from their place of work than their office counterparts. For those who only worked remotely once or twice a week, this grew to 7.6 miles from the office.
This latter group was found to be making nearly 15% fewer trips, but each trip was so much further that they ended up driving nearly 11% more each week than those who commuted to work each day. This is offset by those who worked from home almost all of the time, who drove 25% less and traveled 20% less each week.
However, the researchers emphasize that hybrid workers far outnumbered full-time remote workers, so the impact on emissions was generally negative. This is especially true when considering the additional trips made by remote workers.
“Overall, our study results suggest that for the majority of teleworkers in England, a combination of relocation, induced non-working travel and influencing the travel behavior of other household members outweighs the benefits of less commuting,” the researchers conclude.
“Although we have found significant associations between teleworking and travel patterns, we have not demonstrated a causal relationship. The differences in travel patterns between teleworkers and non-teleworkers may be due to unobserved differences between the two groups rather than teleworking per se – more research is needed to examine this issue.”
This is important as research from Theta Global Advisors shows that 57% of us are interested in having a hybrid way of working in the post-Covid era. If companies want to ensure their environmental footprint is as small as possible, this might be worth considering.
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