As business and HR leaders consider whether -- and to what degree -- they'll allow employees the flexibility of working remotely, the environmental impact of remote work should factor into their considerations.
Remote work can be environmentally sustainable in a number of ways, with benefits such as a reduction in employee commuting and the potential of more environmentally friendly employee meals helping reduce a company's impact on the environment.
In addition, remote work is a win for companies in ways that extend beyond environmental gains. Remote work can improve employee experience.
A desire for a flexible working arrangement was one of the top three reasons survey respondents sought out a new job, according to the 2022 McKinsey study "Americans Are Embracing Flexible Work -- and They Want More of It."
Here's more about how remote work is more sustainable, as well as some factors company leaders should keep in mind to ensure their organization's remote work arrangement is helping the environment.
How remote work can have a positive impact on the environment
Remote employees' behaviors can help the environment in a variety of ways. Here are four.
Fewer cars commuting to work
Remote work helps companies be more sustainable because employees working from home don't drive to the office every day, which reduces emissions.
Avoiding a commute is an unequivocal win for emissions, said Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University.
Research supports this assessment. If employees who are able to work from home did so for half their work schedule, greenhouse gases would decrease by 54 million tons, according to Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting organization located in San Diego.
Less packaging and food waste
Food waste and the types of materials used for food packaging are two major environmental issues.
Food and food packaging make up almost 45% of the items put in landfills, according to a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report.
Food packaging in particular comes into play in an office environment.
"For people who are working in the office, many times they might [eat] processed food or food that is very costly in terms of the environmental impact," said Wen Fan, an associate professor in the department of sociology at Boston College who focuses on the future of work, including remote work and the four-day workweek. "When they prepare their own meals at home, it's typically more sustainable."
Snacks that employees eat at the office are usually packaged food such as potato chips or granola bars. For example, "dry snacks" -- which includes items such as packaged chips or pretzels -- was the second-most popular snack category at Zerocater clients' offices in the Bay Area, according to a 2017 study from the catering company.
That snack packaging has a negative environmental impact. More than 80% of the food products studied by the World Wildlife Fund Australia in 2021 included packaging that consumers cannot recycle. WWF-Australia examined products such as cookies, potato chips and candy.
Opportunities for office efficiency
Expanding remote work options can open up opportunities to decrease company office space. Heating or cooling a smaller space requires less energy, reducing a company's direct emissions.
"If you're downsizing in the office sector, then you are achieving additional [energy] savings," said Steve Sorrell, a professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex.
If a company's employees work remotely full time, the organization might not even use a brick-and-mortar location, thus eliminating emissions from direct heating and cooling.
Less air travel
Remote work arrangements now extend to beyond employees doing their day-to-day work at home. Thanks to more virtual events, options to attend work conferences remotely have increased compared with in-person events, which require that many conference attendees fly.
Attending a conference remotely and avoiding flying for work is a win for the environment, as air travel was responsible for 2% of worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.
Remote work factors to keep in mind
While remote work can help the environment in a variety of ways, company leaders should make sure remote work's positive impacts aren't negatively affected by other employee or company behaviors.
"We shouldn't see telework as a panacea [for the environment]," Sorrell said.
For example, employees who work from home might get antsy and run an errand or go on some other outing using their car.
"When people are working at home, they tend to take additional trips," Sorrell said.
In addition, company leaders should examine their organization's lighting, heating and cooling arrangements for their office building. Lighting, heating and cooling an office space is a waste of energy if employees aren't in the office.
Most workplaces today are still heated and cooled even if the office is unoccupied, Gillingham said.