September 21, 2023
Fully remote workers can have a 54 percent lower carbon footprint compared with fully in-office workers, and all forms of remote and hybrid working have the potential to cut emissions, according to a new study from researcher at Cornell University and sponsored by Microsoft. The authors conclude that lifestyle choices and work arrangements playing an essential role in determining the environmental benefits of remote and hybrid work.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggests that hybrid workers who work from home two to four days per week can reduce their carbon footprint by 11 percent to 29 percent, but working from home one day per week is more negligible, cutting carbon footprint by only 2 percent.
“Remote work is not zero carbon, and the benefits of hybrid work are not perfectly linear,” said study senior author Fengqi You, professor in energy systems engineering at Cornell. “Everybody knows without commuting you save on transportation energy, but there’s always lifestyle effects and many other factors.”
The main contributors to carbon footprint for onsite and hybrid workers, according to the study, are travel and office energy use. That’s no surprise to researchers quantifying the impact of remote work on the environment, but Cornell and Microsoft used survey data and modeling to incorporate factors sometimes overlooked when calculating carbon footprint, including residential energy use based on time-use allocation, non-commute distance and mode of transportation, communications device usage, number of household members and office configuration, such as seat sharing and building size.
Notable findings and observations include:
- Non-commute travel, such as trips to social and recreational activities, becomes more significant as the number of remote workdays increases.
- Seat sharing among hybrid workers under full-building attendance can reduce carbon footprint by 28 percent.
- Hybrid workers tend to commute farther than onsite workers due to differences in housing choices.
- The effects of remote and hybrid work on communications technologies such as computer, phone and internet usage have negligible impacts on overall carbon footprint.
“Remote and hybrid work shows great potential for reducing carbon footprint, but what behaviours should these companies and other policy makers be encouraging to maximize the benefits?” said Longqi Yang, principal applied research manager at Microsoft and corresponding author of the study. “The findings suggest organizations should prioritize lifestyle and workplace improvements.”
The study was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation, and leveraged survey data from Microsoft, the American Time Use Survey, the National Household Travel Survey and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey.