2020: The Year Pants Became Optional For Some.
In March 2020, America confirmed its first COVID-19 case. Immediately afterward, many organizations announced initiatives to get people working from home whenever possible. This included not just tech companies, customer service centers, and banks but even government agencies. The streets emptied around the world, so much so that CNBC reported wildlife had begun to wander into urban centers to improve environmental effects.
“The world is healing,” became a common theme on social media as people shared some of the amazing effects on the environment of quarantine at home efforts on a mass scale. While many countries and American states are reopening, a significant number of companies have made it clear they intend to keep work-from-home initiatives in place until the end of the year at least. Tech companies dominate this group and include the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.
What Is Remote Work?
When most people think of remote work, digital nomads and stay-at-home parents come to mind. This illustrates both ends of the vast remote work spectrum. At one end are traveling millennials taking extended gap years with perhaps no intention of returning home to regular life. These professionals complete work assignments ranging from freelance writing to software development. More often than not, they work as independent contractors who serve clients.
At the other end are people grounded in long-term locations working for companies that may still just be a quick 15-minute drive from home. These professionals are generally employees and often still need to report to work once per week or even once per month. Up until COVID-19, remote workers tended to be at the mid-level point or higher in their careers and could leverage better remote work terms.
Put simply, remote work covers a large base area. During the current pandemic, most remote workers are remaining grounded to one long-term location. That means fewer vehicles on the road honking in rush-hour traffic and less time spent on subways. How long can this new reality last, though?
Is Remote Work Here To Stay?
Unfortunately, there are millions of Americans who can work from home but whose employers insisted that they continue to report to work. Meanwhile, the managers at mid-level and higher work from home. Among these professionals are accountants, paralegals, designers and marketers. Even so, millions more Americans have now received the opportunity to work from home — some for the first time.
Remote work had gradually gained popularity over the past few years and remains one of the most sought-after perks. By 2019, there were already millions of Americans working from home. In the fall of 2019, CNBC reported that at least 8 million people worked entirely from home in America, which is roughly 5.3% of the U.S. working population. NPR reported that the pandemic caused this number to grow exponentially to a third of Americans.
Since then, lifestyle blogs and news companies alike have wondered aloud whether this new reality could become a permanent one for workers. One survey implies the answer is a resounding “yes.” A Gartner survey revealed that 74% of CFOs planned to keep remote work in place beyond the pandemic. In fact, some planned to make permanent remote work changes.
What Will This Mean for the Environment?
The most relatable way to compare the impact of fewer cars on the roads is to look at the use of fuel. Many people currently working from home report that even with runs to the grocery store, they haven’t bought gas since the pandemic first started. Few people can remember a time when a tank of gas could serve for a month, much less several months. There are broader implications to consider as well.
Reduced Fossil Fuel Consumption
Over the past few years, people have become increasingly conscious of their consumption levels and how to reduce it. For some, this meant trading in gas guzzlers for hybrids and electric vehicles. However, most people charge electric vehicles from electrical grids that are still powered by fossil fuels.
While this energy consumption is less than what it takes to run a gas-powered car, it does not negate the fact that even EVs run on fossil fuels for the most part. By simply staying home more often, people lower the fossil fuel consumption usually spent on transportation.
Reduced Greenhouse Gases
The U.S. Environmental effects Protection Agency estimates that transportation accounted for 28.2% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. The main culprits included minivans, pickup trucks, light-duty trucks, SUVs and even small passenger vehicles. The EPA estimated total greenhouse gases at 6,677 tons. If a third of U.S. workers continue to work remotely, that number could fall by up to 627 million tons.
Of course, this only applies if remote workers continued to work at home. Remote workers who travel across the country in recreational vehicles or who fly around the world and live in hotel rooms contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. They also, however, contribute to local economies around the world, which is another important aspect of sustainability and environmental effects.
Reduced Energy Consumption
It takes less energy to power a home than it does to power a commercial building. Think of all the equipment buildings need to stay functional and safe while accommodating business operations:
- Large-scale heating and cooling systems
- Bright LED lights even in unused spaces
- Large printing and scanning devices
- Large physical severs as backups for cloud computing
- EVs charging in the parking lot
- Kitchen appliances in breakrooms
What makes businesses use more energy is the open space and how much of it goes unused. In a home, people have the option of only lighting the rooms they use. Many homeowners have even installed mini-split HVAC units that heat and cool rooms individually.
Better Air Quality
It is inevitable that some remote workers will return to traveling after the pandemic winds down. Some already have and some never stopped. Even so, the reduced greenhouse gases in the air and lower production of exhaust decrease air pollution and improve air quality.
Air pollution contributes to respiratory illnesses and other health conditions, so residents all around the world welcomed the opportunity to breathe fresh air. In fact, by April 2020, several news agencies reported that residents in the country’s most populous state now breathed cleaner air because of the stay-at-home orders.
Los Angeles, usually beset with smog, experienced the clearest stretch of clean air in several decades as millions of drivers stayed home. Overall, the air quality in Southern California improved by 20%.
Reduced Paper Usage
When people work in an office where management is responsible for replenishing paper and ink, they think little about consuming these and other resources. When employers are now allowing more people to work from home, many do not give out all the necessary tools. It’s a tough order providing printers, ink and paper for each worker, so many employees must obtain their own supplies.
Even when workers receive these resources from employers, they tend to conserve them more carefully because overuse is easily tied to them. Remote workers also have fewer opportunities to dispose of this waste. Getting a second bin or a recycling bin is not usually free. Reducing paper saves not just trees but the water and energy used for manufacturing and transportation for better results in environmental effects.
Reduced Consumption of One-Use Items
When people spend more time away from home, they eat out more. This is true whether they work in coffee shops or an office. When eating out, consumers inevitably need more one-use items like these:
- Plastic utensils and disposable chopsticks
- Coffee cups
- Soda cups
- Styrofoam lunch boxes
- Plastic and paper bags
Sure, people who work from home may head out for lunch or order out. However, convenience and savings can encourage remote workers to prepare their own meals at home.
Reduced Crowding in Urban Centers
In late 2018, the Washington Post published some surprising information. About 80% of Americans live in cities, but many felt they had no choice. In fact, only 12% of people surveyed said living in a city would always be their preference.
Another 21% preferred to be on the outskirts of a big city in the suburbs. More than half of the respondents would prefer to live in small cities, small towns and the countryside which have impacts on environmental effects. So, why do so many Americans live in the city?
They move to big urban centers in search of work. Unfortunately, rural areas and the suburbs do not often offer good employment opportunities. If more companies allowed Americans to work remotely, that could change. More people may consider returning to rural areas, thereby reducing the pressure on urban infrastructures.
Increased Time and Motivation for Environmental Effects Pursuits
CNBC estimates that the average time drivers spend behind the wheel commuting to and from work every day is 52.2 minutes. For people who work five days per week, that’s 4.35 hours regained every week of remote work. In a month, that climbs to 17.4 hours. With more free time on hand, people have more chances to volunteer on sustainability projects such as beach cleanups.
With the opportunity to work from anywhere at their fingertips, people may be moving back into rural areas previously deserted by college graduates and ambitious professionals. Rural spaces provide bigger yards, larger green spaces, and longer hiking trails to gain an appreciation for the great outdoors, leading to more motivation to protect these environments.
Only time will tell what the future holds for remote work. As this work arrangement becomes more normal and states continue to open up, worker habits may change. These could easily introduce new factors that undermine many of the advantages remote work provides for the environmental effects. To add to this, many people who previously looked forward to remote work now hate it and are looking forward to returning to the office.
Even so, remote work seems destined to become one of the best green initiatives companies can invest in for 2020 onward.