14 April 2020

Work from home, save the planet – how telecommuting fosters sustainability

Flexible working

One of the most sought-after factors for a healthy work-life-balance and desired work situations is the ability to work from home. In a rapidly changing work environment and with every technology at our fingerprints that allows us to stay connected with local teams as well as co-workers around the globe, the necessity for long commutes and full days at the office is dwindling. The advantages of working from home, however, may it be part-time or full-time, are far greater than just meeting employees’ workplace preferences. In fact, remote work helps create more ecological sustainability, supports economic growth, improves gender equality and reduces the wealth imbalance balance between urban and rural communities.

Statistics gathered by Work Place Analytics show 80% of employees want to work from home, at least some of the time, 35% would even change their job for the opportunity to telecommute, and since 2005 remote work opportunities have grown by 173%. The chance to work away from the office is often valued greater than a pay increase, more than one-third of the employees would even accept a pay cut of up to 5% for the chance to work at least parts of their hours remotely.

Luckily, the workforce’s desires are aligned with what’s also beneficial for employers, for the environment and even for communities and society as a whole. The UN in their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  defined 17 primary goals within their “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity”, of which the following 6 are directly connected to and being supported by increasing remote work opportunities.

Ensure Healthy Lives and Promote Well-Being

No aspect of our professional lives appears to be valued as highly in ensuring a healthy work-life-balance as working from home. Whilst a lack of social interaction and loneliness are sometimes mentioned as side effects of remote work, employees seem to think differently. A survey conducted by GoToMeetings revealed that 60% of over 3000 participants would more likely accept a job with strong opportunities to work from home, 40% stated their lives would be worse if they couldn’t work from home, and over 40% of respondents aged 25-44 named as one of the biggest benefits the ability to start a family or care for family and/or pets. 39 % listed the benefit of saving money on commutes as a major benefit of working remotely.

Health and well-being aren’t only improved by reducing financial and mental stress, time savings and increased safety also play an important role. According to the U.S. Consenus Bureau, Americans spend on average 26.1 minutes per day travelling to and from work, Europeans spend 1 hour 24 minutes on their daily commute. Globally, roughly 1.25 million people die every year as a result of road traffic crashes, and vehicle kilometres travelled relate directly to the occurrence of traffic accidents, which goes to show the biggest factor in being safer is simply driving less.

The time saved in commuting generally goes to benefit aspects of life that promote more well-being – may it be spending quality time with family, exercising, more sleep and personal activities. Surprisingly, all this even supports greater gender equality, as stated by the UN on their 2030 agenda as point #5 “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

Gender Equality

Whilst the connection between gender equality and remote working might not be apparent at first sight, it quickly becomes obvious when taking a closer look at traditional female roles and women’s struggle to combine raising children, running a household and pursuing a career. With the increase in telecommuting and women as well as men, operating their jobs from home, there is a greater chance for sharing responsibilities within a household. Fathers have an equal opportunity, to make lunch between meetings or run to pick the children up from school. Whilst the lines between work and private life may become more blurred, the often-addressed struggle between mother and career role also becomes easier.

Working from home further helps to empower women in the use of information technology. The gender gap in the technology sector is still significant. Women earn a mere 28% of computer science degrees and hold only 25% of computing jobs, where only 11 % of executive roles in Silicon Valley are currently occupied by women. The opportunity to work remotely, especially in technology jobs, maybe an incentive for more women to pursue such a career. What is already evident: companies that predominantly rely on remote work show a significant, larger number of women in leadership roles. Whilst only 14.2% of the top 5 leadership roles in S&P 500 companies are held by women, the percentage is much higher in remote working companies:  A survey by Remote.co established that women make up 42% of the remote companies interviewed, and 28% of 53 remote companies researched had female founder or co-founders.

Further reading

Clean Energy and greater responsibility

Remote work further provides an opportunity to change the sources of energy we utilize as well as the way it’s being used, as it puts usage in the responsibility of the individual and encourages awareness for consumption. Working from home means initially having to pay for the energy used, regardless of compensation agreements workers may have with their employee or that home office use can be subject for income tax returns. People who work in their living space are more aware of their use of electricity, based on a set of behaviours like when they turn on and off lights, leave a computer running or the way they control climate for their personal comfort. In an office environment, energy consumption may not be thought about much by each employee, and light as well as temperature settings are often automated. Remote workers may opt to use energy-saving LED lights in their home office or choose to open a window instead of starting up the AC.

The same counts for office material used and the amount of waste produced. Paper cups at the coffee kitchen become a thing of the past, and thanks to modern document sharing technologies there is less need for printing and photocopying paper to distribute it for in-person-meetings. Remote workers further possess more personal freedom to choose recycled and environmentally friendly material for their daily work.

Far greater even are the savings in transport energy. Currently, transport accounts for 29 % of energy use in the U.S. The Flexjobs report The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce in cooperation with Global Workplace Analytics equated the impact of emission reduction by remote workers with “taking 600.000 cars of the road for a year” and estimated that if all workers in the U.S. with a chance to telecommute actually worked from home for at least half of the week, 54 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided. Reducing transportation not only saves energy, but also ensures better economic growth.

Economic growth and decent work environment

Traffic does not only cost a huge amount of energy, congested roads also cause loss of business, an impact that’s far greater than commonly expected. Greener Journeys Report analyzed the impact of congested roads on bus travellers in England and established that a mere increase in bus journey travel times by 1 % per annum would lead to the loss of access to 5,000 jobs per year.

Another relevant aspect of how remote work contributes to economic growth can be found in work engagement. Disengaged workers are estimated to cost business over 450 billion dollar per year in the U.S. alone, whilst working from home has proven to be one of the most successful strategies for boosting motivation and engagement, with an increase of up to 25% with only one day working from home. Higher engagement saves business big money – companies can expect less errors, fewer sick days and safety incidents as well as up to 25 % less turnover cost.

While productivity increases, workplace cost decrease – the 2017 State of Telecommuting Report found that any employee that telecommutes half their worktime saves the company on average $11,000 per year, an amount that doubles for full-time remote staff. Since 1 in 3 employees would rather work from home than accepting a pay raise, companies that provide more of such opportunities can further expect to cut down on payroll cost.

Sustainable cities and communities

With the increase in remote work also comes better access to safe and affordable housing. A current trend is the revision of the “rural brain drain” phenomenon – a term describing the out-migration of young, well-educated workers away from rural areas and into the big cities for better job opportunities. With real estate cost on the rise in urban areas, it has become more and more challenging for young families to break into the market. Working from home is turning into a great opportunity not only for these talents to find appropriate housing outside the cities but also to promote wealth development in rural areas. As more and more young, qualified professionals have the ability to live in regional towns, more capital remains there and opens up a stronger demand for the development of restaurants, gyms, spas and other leisure and lifestyle facilities.

Climate Action

The UN ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ states as goal #13 to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact” and an increase of remote work opportunities can support this goal in effective ways. Aside from above-mentioned reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the Global Workforce Report provided a staggering summary of the impact the to date 3.9 million remote workers in the U.S. have on the environment. Annually, they account for:

  • 530 million fewer vehicle trips, leading to a total of 7.8 billion fewer miles travelled
  • 3 million tons of greenhouse gases avoided
  • 498 million $ saved in traffic accidents
  • Almost 1 billion $ saved in oil as a result of less gasoline being needed
  • Approximately 83 million pounds of air quality savings
  • Carbon savings in the equivalent of 91.9 million trees planted or close to 540.000 homes powered by electricity for an entire year

How do negative impacts of remote work weigh in?

Taken all this into account, are there significant disadvantages or greater risks that have to be expected when increasing telecommunicating opportunities and allowing more people to work from home? Coworking Resources lists feelings of isolation, challenges in driving enthusiasm and working in silos, which are important aspects to consider when establishing remote work structures. However, there are many strategies that can be adopted and plenty practical tips available to put more emphasis on the human aspect of remote work and to ensure the establishment and preservation of company culture, connectedness and identification with corporate values to make telecommuting a winning situation for all.

Diversity Matters
A course to help build diverse and inclusive organizations
Diversity Matters
A course to help build diverse and inclusive organizations

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