Is telecommuting good for the environment?

| 26th April 2019
Colleagues working in a cafe
Telecommuting could help reduce the carbon footprint of work.


The International Workplace Group’s Global Workspace Survey was published last month and its findings are as relevant to the environment as they are to workplace dynamics and psychology. 

The survey questioned over 15,000 business people from across 80 nations. Over half reported that their employees work outside of their main office headquarters at least twice a week. 

Anyone doing any type of work from a computer can now work remotely, as technology becomes more portable and production is digitised. While telecommuting serves to benefit the planet, how can we organise our communities and employment to assist those telecommuting who lack certain support and social structures?

Carbon footprint

Of those surveyed, the number of businesses that have work-flex friendly policies was quite small compared to the sample size, which suggests that businesses are slow to adopt a telecommuting policy.

Ravi Gajendran from the Florida International University conducted research on telecommuting and found that working from home contributes to improved performance for employees in complex jobs, which allows them to focus on their work while benefitting from fewer interruptions common in an office setting. 

In Ottawa, Canada, it is widely known that telecommuting is key to reducing the capital’s ecological footprint while also improving people’s health, according to a study by Courtney Howard, Caren Rose, and Trevor Hancock published in the Lancet medical journal.  

This report recommends telecommuting for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The report also cited another Canadian study, “Telecommuting and sustainable travel,” which demonstrates that working from homedecreases overall travel time by 14 minutes and increases non-motorised travel by 77 percent. 

Approximately 68 percent of commuters get to work in a private vehicle which is fewer than any other major city in the country.

Work productivity

Another article, “The Positive Environmental Impact of Remote Work,” highlights various environmental gains due to telecommuters which range from the petrol savings of over $20 million internationally, reduced greenhouse gas emissions (equal to 54 million tons yearly), decreased traffic, improved air quality, reduced carbon footprints, and vast energy savings. 

According to the 2015 PGI Global Telework Survey, approximately 79 percent of workers work from home at home at least one day per week. 

With technology that allows at-home-workers and employers to communicate outside the office through online software, new technology facilitates an ecological working environment while also improved work productivity.

So why are more businesses not stepping up to the telecommuting model? 

The benefits are multiple and well-substantiated today: reduced traffic impact, improved air quality, energy savings, lower overhead for companies, smaller carbon footprint, and less impact on transportation infrastructure. What’s not to like? 

Flexible working 

Certainly, cities like San Antonio, Texas are recognising the importance of telecommuting in relation to its mandate of diminishing the city’s ozone levels. 

Yet, cities like London which have made great strides to bring in bicycle lanes and the Cycle Superhighway, cyclists are still having to be careful of where they ride in order to avoid the high levels of pollution

Earlier this year, the Philippines signed into law the Telecommuting Act (Republic Act 11165 ) for “knowledge workers,” whereby an employer in the private sector may offer a telecommuting option to its employees either on a voluntary basis or as a result of collective bargaining. 

In a country where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos work primarily from their homes employed in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector as call centre agents, this law enables people to earn a living while also not having to waste valuable resources to travel great distances.

In the UK since 2002, flexible working has enabled any employee with children under the age of 6 to request a flexible working arrangement. But the British government has not gone as far as the Philippines in making this move towards telecommuting. 

Local possibilities 

In the US, the number of telecommuters in 2015 had more than doubled from 2005 with a growth rate approximately 10 times greater than what the traditional workforce registered during the same period according to a 2017 report by FlexJobs

The absence of laws supporting telecommuting begs the question as to why western nations are lagging behind.

Let’s not pretend that telecommuting is a simply policy shift where we can all work from our pyjamas in complete bliss. These are many downsides to telecommuting: social isolation and fragmentation of the social network of the workplace; the psychological effects of one’s home also being a work space; insecure or shared housing for which this arrangement can lead to the eventual dissolution of one’s housing; and overworking. 

Another factor often ignored by studies, is that or women specifically are caught in the gendered double-bind where they are expected to perform both professional and domestic labour and for whom the office space can often be a refuge from the burdens of the domestic.  

Lastly, for telecommuters whose employers are not covering overhead costs, the economic side of this equation is also a factor.

Viable Solutions

But there are remedies to these issues. Just as freelancers solved many of these same problems with shared local office space, so too can telecommuters take up this model or work from a local café, library or park. 

Telework hubsare also a viable solution for many where local office space is provided at a fraction of the costs that corporations are paying for prime real estate in major urban centres while allowing workers have a healthy division between work and home.

Where co-working office space took off in cities like New York in the late 1990s, today we are seeing a revival of this model for telecommuters which is also paradoxically saving an architecturaland urban planning dilemma in the US: the dying shopping mall.

Having office space within walking or cycling distance of home, the employee can find a healthy work environment with all the benefits of social interactions, high speed Internet, and support staff—coffee and water cooler to boot—without having to spend two hours plus a day commuting through toxic emissions.

Specific to the challenges women face, some telecommuting offer on-site childcare, but this is rare. Even Japan has been attempting to tackle this issue by encouraging parents working from home to wearbadgesso that their children will know that they are working. Clearly, this suggestion was made by someone who does nothave children. 

In order to solve the problem of women being saddled with more work and domestic pressure, we need telecommuting solutions in which women are not bound to the home and where parents can access some of the more recent co-working and nursery centres such as London’s Third Doorand Second Home. All are viable solutions and would still provide savings for the employer. 

Climate change 

The reality of what is happening to our planet is even harsher than even I imagined — and I write on this subject regularly.  

In watching Our Planet with my small children, I realised quite early on that despite the beautiful images of blue whales, elephant seals and polar bears, that this was a film of a dystopia entirely caused by humans. 

What was to be a feel-good series, quickly turned into my having to explain why seals no longer have the ability to make ice dens to protect their young from polar bears and why walruses are now forced to climb up a dangerous cliff from which hundreds fall to their deaths. 

The reality of climate change is here and our communities must act now or share dire repercussions with the animals so beautifully and horrifically captured in this series.

Telecommuting is one viable way for us to resituate and restructure habitual patterns in order to reduce our carbon footprint, share resources and build resilience. 

This Author 

Julian Vigo is an independent scholar, filmmaker and activist who specialises in anthropology, technology, and political philosophy. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). You can follow her on Twitter at @lubelluledotcom.

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