Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve seen numerous dispatches issued by software developers touting the carbon footprint reduction potential of shifting to collaboration applications for many employee meetings.
Here’s one example: An April dispatch from Boston-based LogMeIn estimates that its roughly 2 million customers avoided up to 63 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between April 2020 and March through the use of its GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar services, compared with the impact of employee commuting and travel for company meetings. (The company got that figure by using the distance between meeting hosts and participants for each meeting it hosted; not counting audio-only calls.)
Sourcing data of this nature will become essential as businesses around the world ponder the future makeup of their workplaces — fewer than 20 percent of them will return to exactly how things were pre-pandemic, according to a PwC survey from January.
For corporate sustainability professionals, that means two really big questions (and many small ones) to consider: How will a hybrid style of working — with some employees remaining in home offices — affect carbon footprint calculations? And, just as important: What actions can or should a company take to mitigate the impact of emissions associated with remote offices?
Consulting firm Anthesis Group in February published a guide to help companies start researching answers. And in late March, carbon accounting software firm Watershed released a free calculator designed to help corporations with the task of assessing the carbon footprint implications of managing all-in offices versus hybrid or fully remote models. The startup, founded by several former Stripe employees and backed by Sequoia’s Mike Moritz and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr, consulted with customers including Shopify and Square to create the tool.
Watershed co-founder Taylor Francis said while many managers (not just sustainability types) assume remote work is less carbon-intensive, the reality is far more complicated — especially as employees move farther away from campuses and headquarters sites. The farther the distance, the more quickly the transportation-related emissions will add up, especially if individuals need to fly to meetings. As the company notes in a recent blog, "Remote work shifts carbon: emissions from energy and food still exist, but at employees’ homes, where they may be better or worse than in the office."
Francis suggests sustainability teams be closely involved with developing post-pandemic commuting policies and prioritize policies that support employee collaboration but ensure that air travel, in particular, remains low. This is the time to provide benefits, such as reimbursements that support public transit, or that encourage alternative transportation methods, such as bicycles. Watershed estimates the average 100-person company can cut workplace-related emissions by up to 20 percent annually by cutting the number of round trips per employee from three to two.
Watershed also encourages a rethink of corporate procurement policies, so employees who need to kit out their homes for offices are procuring the lowest-carbon office products and services possible. That could be for printer paper or courier services, but one of the most important items to evaluate is the electricity powering all those virtual meetings and the heating and air-conditioning systems used to climate-control individuals offices, Francis said. "I would love to see clean power as an employee benefit replace free lunch," he observed.
Of course, lots of variables are involved in that — including whether employees own their home or are renters— but it’s a question that a growing number of companies are exploring.
E-commerce software firm Shopify expanded its carbon footprint calculations to include deeper data on remote work last May, when it moved to a “digital by default” workplace model, said Stacy Kauk, director of the sustainability fund at Shopify, which manages the company’s $5 million annual investment in carbon removal projects. It gathers this information through surveys on energy use and home size, and uses "industry best practices" to calculate the associated emissions.
That information was included for the first time in 2020 as part of the company’s overall buildings emissions data, and Shopify estimates that the shift to remote work helped reduce "operational" emissions by 29 percent last year. That impact was offset by the aforementioned fund, used to help innovative carbon technologies and nature-based solutions reach commercial scale.
"We acknowledge that there isn’t a simple solution to tracking the impact of remote-first work environments, and many emissions sources must be measured to understand total climate impact," wrote Kauk, in response to questions I emailed her for this essay. "Remote work is especially complicated because when there is no office, employee behavior changes in terms of where to live, whether to buy a car, etc. While these are not traditionally considered in corporate carbon footprints, it is important to recognize the ripple effects."
How is your company accounting for the impact of remote work, and what tools is it using to do so? What new initiatives is it embracing to balance that impact? Email your thoughts to [email protected].