ITHACA, N.Y. — The so-called “return to the office” post-COVID hasn’t played out quite like many CEOs and businesses envisioned. Countless unoccupied commercial buildings all over the country continue to collect dust, and tons of remote workers swear they’d rather switch jobs than start commuting again. While it remains to be seen if office culture will ever truly recover, a new study from Cornell University and Microsoft is offering up at least one more reason for workers to stay home — it’s good for the environment.
Scientists report remote workers can have a 54-percent lower carbon footprint than on-site employees. Of course, study authors explain that personal preferences, lifestyle choices, and work arrangements play a big role in determining the environmental benefits of remote and hybrid work on an individual level.
Even hybrid workers who split their professional time and stay home two to four days per week can still reduce their carbon footprint by 11 to 29 percent. Meanwhile, staying home one day per week is more negligible, cutting carbon footprints by just two percent.
“Remote work is not zero carbon, and the benefits of hybrid work are not perfectly linear,” says study senior author Fengqi You, a professor in energy systems engineering at Cornell, in a university release. “Everybody knows without commuting you save on transportation energy, but there’s always lifestyle effects and many other factors.”
What’s contributing to onsite and hybrid workers’ carbon footprints?
The study points to travel and office energy use as the two biggest culprits. While those two contributors are hardly surprising, researchers were sure to account for other factors often overlooked by earlier studies while calculating carbon footprints. Examples include residential energy use based on time-use allocation, non-commute distance and mode of transportation, communications device usage, number of household members, and office configuration (seat sharing, building size).
The study’s most notable conclusions include:
- Non-commute travel (trips to social and recreational activities) tends to become more significant as the amount of remote workdays increases.
- Seat sharing among hybrid workers under full-building attendance can reduce carbon footprints by as much as 28 percent.
- Hybrid workers often commute farther than onsite workers due to housing choice differences.
- The influence of remote and hybrid work on communications technologies such as computer, phone, and internet usage appears to have a negligible impact on overall carbon footprints.
“Remote and hybrid work shows great potential for reducing carbon footprint, but what behaviors should these companies and other policy makers be encouraging to maximize the benefits?” explains Longqi Yang, a principal applied research manager at Microsoft and corresponding author of the study. “The findings suggest organizations should prioritize lifestyle and workplace improvements.”
Prof. You recommends that companies and policymakers begin focusing more on incentivizing employees to commute via public transportation as opposed to driving, start eliminating office space for remote workers, and prioritize the improvement of energy efficiency at remaining office buildings.
“Globally, every person, every country and every sector have these kinds of opportunities with remote work. How could the combined benefits change the whole world? That’s something we really want to advance our understanding of,” concludes Yanqiu Tao, a doctoral student and the study’s first author.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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