May 30, 2024

This story was produced by Grist and is with Fast company.

When office workers stopped working in offices in 2020 and traded their cubicles for lounge sofas during COVID-19 lockdowns, many began to question the hours they spent commuting to work. All those rushed mornings stuck in traffic that could have been spent getting things done? Life was often lonely for those stuck in their homes, but people found something to appreciate when birdsong rang through the quiet streets. And the temporary drop in travel had the side effect of reducing global carbon emissions 7 percent in 2020 – a flash of good news in an otherwise miserable year.

Emissions returned in 2021, when people began to resume some of their normal activities, but offices have never been the same. While remote work was rare before the pandemic, today, 28 percent of Americans work a “hybrid” schedulego into the office some days, and 13 percent work remotely full time.

Recent data suggests remote work may accelerate companies’ plans to zero their carbon emissions, but businesses don’t seem to be considering climate change in their decisions about the future of office work. “In the US, I’m sad to say, it’s just not high on the priority list,” says Kate Lister, the founder of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. “It gets up there, and then it falls again for the next shiny object.” Commuting trips fall under a company’s so-called “Scope 3” emissions, the indirect sources that are often ignoredbut represents average, three quarters of the business world’s emissions.

A 10 percent increase in people working remotely could reduce carbon emissions by 192 million metric tons per year, according to a study published in the journal Nature Cities earlier this month. This will reduce the country’s emissions most polluting sector, transportation, by 10 percent. Those findings align with other peer-reviewed research: Switching to remote work instead of going to the office can cut a person’s carbon footprint by 54 percent, according to a study published in the journal PNAS last fall, even when accounting for non-commuting and residential energy use.

“It seems like a very obvious solution to a very pressing and real problem,” said Curtis Sparrer, a principal and co-founder of the PR agency Bospar, a San Francisco-based company that has been working remotely since its inception. 2015 started. “And I’m worried that this whole ‘return to office’ thing is getting in the way.”

Many companies require their employees to show up regularly for in-person work. Last year, major technology companies such as Google, Amazonand Meta told employees they had to come back to the office three days a week or face consequences, such as a lower chance of promotion. Even Zoom, the company that became a household name during the pandemic for its video conferencing platform, is making employees who live within 50 miles of the office commute two days a week.

Photo of an office building and two people looking out of windows
Amazon employees in Seattle watch as others join a walkout to protest the company’s return-to-office policy in May 2023. Organizers drew attention to the climate impact of commuting and say it is in conflict with the company’s climate promise to be carbon neutral by 2040.
AP Photo / Lindsey Wasson

Of course, there are many benefits to going to the office to work with other people. Interacting with your colleagues in person gives you a social boost (without the awkward pauses in Zoom meetings) and a compelling reason to put on your sweatpants in the morning. From a climate change standpoint, the problem is that most Americans tend to hop in their cars to commute, instead of riding a bike or hopping on the bus. A recent poll of Bospar found that two-thirds of Americans drive to work — and they’re mostly in gas-powered cars. Even though purchases of electric vehicles are increasing, they are still roughly adding up 1 percent of the cars on the road.

The climate benefits begin to diminish rapidly when people are summoned to the office. Working from home two to four days a week reduced emissions by between 11 and 29 percent compared to full-time office work, according to the study in PNAS by researchers at Cornell University and Microsoft. If you work remotely just one day a week, those emissions are only reduced by 2 percent. Another big factor is that maintaining physical office space absorbs a lot of energy, as it needs to be heated and cooled.

So should companies be allowed to claim they are going green when they force employees to commute? Many Americans don’t think so, according to Bospar’s survey. More than half of Millennials and Gen Zers said it was hypocritical for companies to celebrate Earth Day while requiring employees to attend work in person.

Sparrer points to Disney, which Earth month celebrated in April with a campaign to promote its environmental efforts but ordered workers to come into the office four days a week last year Nike, meanwhile, has its Earth Day collection of “sustainable” leather shoes while its CEO John Donahoe argued that remote work stifled creativity. “As it turns out, it’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom,” he told CNBC earlier this month.

“We’re entering a time of magical thinking, where people seem to think that’s enough, and it’s not,” Sparrer said. “And the frustration I have is that we’ve all had to experience what it’s like to work from home, and we know how it works, and we know how it can be improved.”

However, working from home can offer some environmental challenges. Recent research that looked at pre-pandemic trends found that if 10 percent of the workforce began working remotely, U.S. transit systems would lose $3.7 billion each year, a 27 percent drop in fare revenue, according to the study in Nature Cities, which was exported. by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Florida and Peking University in Beijing. Some experts worry that remote work can push people into the suburbswhere carbon footprints tend to be higher than in cities.

Right now, there are many employees who want to work from home full-time but are forced to go to the office, Lister said. She sees the mandate for returning to office as a result of corporate leadership wanting to go back to the way things were. “As that generation retires,” she said, “I think a lot of these conversations will disappear.”

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