Is Working from Home Really More Sustainable?

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Working from home is more common than ever before, but as businesses express greater concern for sustainability in operations, does it really make sense to decentralize the workplace? Though offices certainly produce their share of waste and generate inefficiencies, home offices with their material duplications — think multiple printers and copiers or internet routers — have their own problems. What’s a responsible worker to do?

Businesses and workers need to come together to determine where they can cut back on waste and whether a return to the office is better than going remote. Here are three key factors to guide your decision.

Location, Location, Location

Your business’s location is one of the most important factors when determining whether remote work makes sense. Big cities, for example, are more likely to provide sharable transportation that can reduce commuters’ carbon footprint. If a handful of your employees are based in the suburbs, though, it may be better to allow them to work from home; idling in urban traffic can have serious environmental consequences. Research into full-time telecommuters suggests they save $4,000 a year in food, clothing and transit costs, and that’s a lot of gas, dry-cleaning chemicals and plastic cups.

If you want to offer all staff remote work options, consider encouraging urban team members to take advantage of co-working spaces. These membership-based communal offices can reduce home energy waste and provide centralized equipment like faxes and copy machines. They’re a good way for remote workers to maintain focus and motivation outside of the traditional office.

Inside the Home Office

While location depends on the business, individual workers can do a lot to make remote work more sustainable. Smart chargers and dimmer switches, for example, can reduce electrical use. Workers who have already equipped their homes with solar panels or passive heat are also better positioned to make the shift to remote work without sacrificing sustainability.

Remote workers should also focus on minimizing paper usage and buying refurbished or energy-efficient equipment whenever possible. Many office appliances now come with an Energy Star rating, indicating that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, buying refurbished equipment may mean using a slightly older, less efficient device but eliminating electronics waste or additional materials mining.

Is telecommuting not as green as you thought it was? Don’t despair. Photo: Adobe Stock

A Smarter Office

As businesses invest more in their properties, including constructing LEED-certified offices, the comparative benefits of working onsite compared to working at home will become greater, but LEED-style construction isn’t the only structural factor at play. Modern eco-friendly buildings are making use of data from built-in IoT to reduce energy waste and make ambient adjustments. And as an added bonus, besides reducing waste, these changes can make the workplace more comfortable by adjusting the lighting throughout the day, monitoring temperature and even adjusting the humidity.

When it comes to the race to go green, the difference between working from home and working onsite isn’t set in stone. Instead, it all comes down to the little differences — how people travel to work, what equipment they use and what structural changes businesses make to reduce their impact. Workers are clamoring for the flexibility to work from home, but they’ll have to collaborate with owners and management to make that a sustainable option.

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Larry Alton

Larry is an independent business consultant who has written for Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, Huffington Post and dozens of other online media publications. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.