Hybrid working has many benefits. Workers enjoy the lifestyle benefits of avoiding the commute and working from home for some of the week, while still being able to interact, brainstorm and socialise with colleagues face to face.
With many more companies open to flexible working arrangements following the Covid-19 pandemic, The Carbon Literacy Project is seeing many more learners pledging to work from home more often to reduce their carbon footprint. However, there are growing concerns that hybrid working may unintentionally increase carbon emissions.
So, how can you mitigate some of the potential negative carbon impacts of home working?
Greater numbers of hybrid workers
Around two-thirds of workers polled by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have said that they want to work at least part of the week from home, while going into the office on other days. It would be easy to assume that this could result in significant emissions reductions, with fewer people driving to the office each day.
However, the picture does not seem quite as clear cut, with hybrid working resulting in a range of unintended consequences that can be avoided if individuals consider how homeworking fits into a broader shift to more sustainable living.
Fewer longer journeys
Recent research by the University of Sussex found that individuals that work from home for part of the week, while making almost 15% fewer trips, ended up driving as much as 11% further than those that were permanently office based.
There could be a number of reasons for this. With reduced need to be in the office on a daily basis, individuals may have chosen to move further from the office, resulting in a longer journey on the days that they commute. Drivers also tend to make multiple stops on their commute to and from work, to drop children off at school or buy ingredients for dinner. These trips will still take place, even if the drive to work does not. Workers also need to take breaks during the working day and may choose to drive to a café or the gym for a change of scene.
The key is for individuals to think about how a shift to hybrid working may change their wider travel needs and whether active travel or public transport could be an option instead.
Home energy use
Working from home may generate greater benefits in summer than in winter. The majority of offices in the UK are fitted with air conditioning, but less than 5% of UK homes are fitted with any form of air cooling. In summer, there may be less demand for energy if people are working at least some of the time from home. The reverse may be true in winter, when remote workers will be heating their homes at the same time as offices.
In 2020, Engineering firm WSP found that working from home in summer could reduce emissions by 5% relative to working in the office full time. However, it suggested a permanent home worker could emit up to 80% more than someone that is based full time in the office, due to the impact of home heating in winter. However, this figure failed to take into account the fact that many households were already heating their homes during the day, because their partner or children were at home.
More recently, The Carbon Trust has found that full-time home workers did have a lower carbon footprint, saving up to 4.1tCo2e per year. Hybrid workers may not be as efficient because they are heating their homes on some days and commuting on others.
Spending more time working from home has made us more aware of where our homes do not quite fit our needs – no space to work in peace, drafts under the doors or a lack of insulation keeping you too hot or too cold. Hybrid working could provide an impetus to make a range of home improvements. With the cost of fuel and bills rising, there are growing financial benefits to making our homes more energy efficient.
While some organisations are reducing the size of their offices due to hybrid work patterns, many have yet to do so. This may mean that organisations are still heating or cooling just as much space, but for fewer people. Companies may look to downsize in the coming years, but it will be important to do so responsibly, ensuring that new offices are energy efficient and that office equipment is responsibly repurposed rather than dumped.
Calculating the impact
Working with several major banks, EcoAct developed a methodology for calculating the incremental emissions associated with part-time or full-time working from home. It has quickly been adopted by organisations that are keen to investigate the impact of hybrid working on their organisation. The University of Edinburgh found, in one of its departments, the work footprint of a full-time office worker was 1.03 tCo2e, compared with 0.99 tCo2e for a hybrid worker and 0.91 tCo2e for a homeworker.
Low carbon working patterns
Given how recent the shift is, it is perhaps too early to know the full impact of hybrid working on individuals’ and companies’ carbon footprints. However, companies and individuals are naturally looking for advice on the issue. Some of the clearest guidance comes from ClimateXChange. It suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all scenario. The lowest carbon work pattern for employees living close to an energy-efficient office is for them to be fully office-based and commute via active travel or public transport. For individuals that live further away, the biggest reductions come from permanent homeworking.
Some of the banks that were originally involved in the EcoAct study have been looking at how they can help hybrid and homeworkers to reduce their footprint through new employee benefits. For example, one is considering a one-off payment to help employees replace bulbs with LEDs, to switch to a green energy tariff or to improve home insulation.
All these factors need to be considered as part of the wider conversation about a shift to more sustainable ways of living and about the benefits and impacts of hybrid working on employee wellbeing, alongside central funding to enable workers to retrofit and decarbonise their homes.
Carbon Literacy isn’t designed to provide all of the answers to the problem, it is intended to provide space to discuss how various solutions might work for different situations. Facilitating these discussions is a powerful tool to engage everyone in the conversation, to help them find the right solutions to reduce their carbon footprint. To better understand how you, as an individual or organisation, can get involved with Carbon Literacy, please visit our website, and/or contact us for more general information.