Is Hybrid Working Worse For The Planet?

Is Hybrid Working Worse For The Planet?


Last year I looked at the environmental impact of remote working, after a few studies explored whether the practice is as eco-friendly as we might instinctively think. The crux of the studies was that while we do travel less, which is good, we also tend to duplicate equipment and buy larger houses to accommodate home offices, which is bad.

These findings emerged in part due to research from the University of Sussex, and a second team from the university has returned to the topic with a new study, which takes a similarly pessimistic line. The researchers suggest that hybrid working may do little to actually reduce carbon emissions as remote workers typically travel more than their office-based peers.

Traveling further

The researchers looked at travel patterns before the pandemic, and found that remote workers (in England) typically traveled further every week, despite taking fewer trips, than those working in the office. This somewhat counter-intuitive finding is because when we work remotely we also tend to live further away from the office, so each trip in adds up to a larger total than those who live closer to the office and travel in each day. What’s more, when we work remotely, we also seem to take more ancillary trips, such as to cafes or the shops.

This was especially so for households in which at least one person was working remotely, which the researchers believe shows that when we have remote workers at home, it also encourages more travel among other members of the household.

“Our study finds that remote working can have unintended consequences that offset the potential travel and carbon savings. If you only commute a couple of days a week, you may choose to live further from your workplace,” the researchers explain. “And if you work at home during the day, you may choose to take additional trips—perhaps to pick up some shopping or simply to get out of the house. We must consider these possibilities when estimating the contribution of teleworking to carbon targets.”

Negligible impact

With the Covid pandemic seeing not only people working from home on an unprecedented scale but also emissions and air pollution plummeting, there was a perhaps logical expectation that remote working would be good for the planet.

The research found that over 15 years prior to the pandemic, remote working had a negligible impact on emissions from travel, as while people who worked remotely full-time generally traveled slightly less than their office-based peers, those who did so part-time traveled significantly more.

The findings emerged after analyzing data from the English National Travel Survey, which included data on 3.6 million trips undertaken by around 270,000 people between 2005 and 2019.

Worse for the planet

The data showed that people who worked from home a few times per week typically lived over 4 miles further from their workplace than their office-based peers. This grew out to 7.6 miles away from the office for those who worked remotely just once or twice a week.

This latter group was found to take nearly 15% fewer trips but each trip was so much further that they ended up traveling nearly 11% more each week than those who commuted to work every day. This is counter-balanced by those who worked from home nearly all of the time, who took 25% fewer trips and traveled 20% less each week.

The researchers highlight, however, that hybrid workers considerably outnumbered full-time remote workers, so the impact on emissions was generally negative. This is especially so when the additional trips taken by remote workers are taken into account.

“Overall our study results suggest that, for the majority of remote workers in England, a combination of residential relocation, induced non-work travel and the influence on the travel patterns of other household members offset the benefits of fewer commutes,” the researchers conclude .

“While we have found significant associations between remote working and travel patterns, we have not demonstrated a causal relationship. The differences in travel patterns between teleworkers and non-teleworkers may arise from unobserved differences between the two groups, rather than from teleworking per se and we need more research to explore this issue.”

This matters, as research from Theta Global Advisors suggests that 57% of us are keen to have a hybrid way of working in the post-Covid era. If organizations want to ensure their environmental footprint is as low as possible, this might be something to consider.

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