Emissions data strengthens case for remote, hybrid work

A Cornell University-Microsoft study shows that remote work cuts carbon emissions, but how much depends on the model itself as one day of working from home a week is negligible.

Companies urging employees to return to office environments might inadvertently contribute to the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, embracing remote or hybrid work arrangements could play a pivotal role in slashing carbon emissions.

A collaborative study by Cornell University and Microsoft researchers discovered that remote workers can produce up to "a 54% lower carbon footprint compared to onsite workers." Meanwhile, employees who blend remote and in-office work by spending two to four days working from home can contribute an 11% to 29% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the effectiveness of hybrid work on greenhouse gas emissions hinges on more than just a single work-from-home day per week. One day of remote work each week results in only a 2% decrease in carbon footprint, according to the study. This is attributed to offsetting factors including a rise in noncommute travel, such as trips to run errands and exercise, and increased energy consumption at home.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study also emphasized that office energy use is a primary contributor to carbon emissions. It proposed a shift toward "commute decarbonization," suggesting alternatives to gasoline-powered commutes and the potential for downsizing office spaces.

Environmental benefits have been more like the icing on the cake rather than a major driver.
Kate ListerPresident, Global Workplace Analytics

According to Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, despite the environmental perks, carbon emission considerations have yet to significantly influence remote and hybrid work decisions.

"Environmental benefits have been more like the icing on the cake rather than a major driver," she said.

However, Lister believes the new study could invigorate the discussion around remote work, particularly for companies leaning toward an office-centric approach.

The research used data from Microsoft, which shared insights into its employee commuting patterns, energy consumption related to remote work and other relevant data. Some other data sources included the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In a separate study published last month, Resume Builder, an online service for creating resumes, found that 9 in 10 companies will want employees back in the office by the end of 2024, based on a survey of 1,000 office workers with household incomes of at least $75,000 annually. It found that 36% of companies require their employees to work in the office five days a week, but that remote work is preferred.

The U.S.-based survey found that 31% of employers will ask workers to return to the office four days a week, and another 43% will mandate employees be in the office three days a week.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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