Does working from home grow your carbon footprint?

Over recent years, a growing number of businesses have embraced flexible working strategies, using the online services and mobile devices to allow employees to hotdesk, work from home, or scrutinize their spreadsheets while on the go.

The trend has been hailed as a means of cutting office costs, improving work-life balance, and crucially, reducing environmental impacts and carbon emissions. But does flexible and home working really help businesses cut their carbon footprint and, if so, how can firms maximize those savings?

A major new analysis from the Carbon Trust has this week set out to try to answer these crucial questions, and in doing so it has revealed some fascinating results that suggest firms seeking to cut emissions through working from home policies need to take a decidedly nuanced approach to flexible working models.

The report,  published yesterday, suggested that working from home has the potential to save companies $5 billion and 3 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year through reduced commuting. But, anyone who has ever sat trying to send emails from their kitchen table only to realize their fingers are too cold to type and they really need to turn the heating on quickly realizes the financial and environmental benefits associated with home working are not always so clear-cut.

The Carbon Trust research found that working from home offers the biggest benefits to people who live far from their office or travel in by car. In contrast, those employees who can walk to work or take public transport can find that working from home can have the reverse effect, pushing up costs and carbon emissions.

As a general rule of thumb, the report found that working from home will shrink an employee's carbon footprint if they usually drive more than 4 miles to work in the morning, take a bus for more than 7 miles, or travel by train for 16 miles or more. Shorter journeys mean that the increased carbon emissions associated with powering and heating employees' homes during the day are higher than the savings that result from a cancelled commute, meaning net higher emissions.

Similarly, the report calculated that if homeworkers heated their entire house for just over one hour, it would eliminate the carbon savings from an average commute. However, if workers choose to heat just one room then they can work in comfort for seven hours before the emissions from the average commute are replaced. It appears that working from home during winter could quickly lead to net increases in emissions, while working from home during summer could result in significant emissions savings.

The report found that average figures for commute distances and transport choices suggest that the average employee can save 260kg CO2e and $794 per year through working from home. But the variations between different commutes are significant, meaning that any company that wishes to maximize environmental gains needs to consider employees' individual circumstances.

Hugh Jones, managing director of Advisory at the Carbon Trust, said the report highlighted the nuanced impacts of working from home. "Significant financial and carbon savings can be achieved from the roll out of homeworking," he said. "But companies must be careful to ensure that they get the balance right, for if employers do not take account of their individual circumstances, a rebound effect from employees heating inefficient homes, may actually lead to an increase in carbon emissions."

The report also highlighted how companies such as Accenture, EDF Energy, Aviva and HSBC have taken steps to help employees insulate their homes, and recommends that firms could also encourage the roll out of smart meters or heating controls in order to ensure working from home delivers real carbon savings.

According to the Office of National Statistics, just 13 percent of the UK's 30 million strong workforce usually work from home, but the Carbon Trust found significant scope for this to rise as growing numbers of firms seek to tackle underused office space and realize the financial savings working from home can offer.

A survey the company conducted in December showed that currently only 35 percent of companies have a flexible working policy. But with these numbers expected to increase, the environmental and financial savings could grow too, as long as staff are encouraged to consider the carbon impact of their transport emissions and take steps to improve cold and inefficient homes.

This article first appeared at BusinessGreen Plus. Photo of footprint in sand by Leon Skinner via Shutterstock.