How to make remote work eco-friendly

Working from home, despite cutting the commute, may not be as eco-friendly as it seems. Claire Muir finds out what it takes to make hybrid work greener

As the shift to hybrid working begins amid a climate emergency, 2021’s Working From Home: The Sustainability Question report on building a more sustainable future of work is more relevant than ever.

While the report provides an actionable roadmap for responsible employers, we delve into how HR can lead the way on greener remote work strategies.

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The extent to which work from home arrangements impact on an employee’s environmental footprint remains “largely unclear”, according to the Working From Home report, a collaboration between business management consultancy MoreThanNow and LSE Consulting, part of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

A reduction in high-carbon activities, such as commuting by car, is great news.

But these benefits could be outweighed by other behaviours, such as increased use of tech, higher home energy consumption and even increased non-work travel.

As such, the report concludes that “Work from home might not be a clear win from an environmental perspective”. 

So the pressure is on employers to ensure hybrid working considerations don’t just look at what is good for the business and its staff – but also what is good for the environment, too. 

For global business services giant Capgemini, however, there is no doubt. After surveying 42,000 of its employees, the company concluded that there are “definite carbon benefits from homeworking”.

And, says James Robey, global head of sustainability, tech has a key role to play: “Technology offers a way for many companies to deliver on their purpose, and HR teams can facilitate this by ensuring the right internal policies, communications and organisational structures are in place to ensure the optimal use of technology in a way that delivers corporate goals. 

“For example, establishing travel policies that integrate technology can help organisations progress carbon reduction aspirations. By linking technology and purpose, HR can also create a culture of using digital innovation to unlock improved ways of operating. 

“At Capgemini, for example, our HR team offers everyone who joins our organisation training on our sustainability strategy – as the start of welcoming them into a culture where technology and innovation are seen as key to achieving net zero globally.”

Taking this a step further, Salesforce – which boasts net-zero emissions across its full value chain, 100% renewable energy for its operations and Great Place to Work’s Best Place to Work in Europe title for the last two years – launched its Sustainability at Home Guide back in October 2020, sharing actionable ways to make work from home greener.

Building on this, senior director of employee success Terri Moloney has found tapping into employees to champion environmental values to be an incredibly successful strategy: “We make it easy for employees to be part of our initiatives, offering in-office events and out of the office volunteer opportunities to make everyone empowered to make an impact.

"We believe these moments create ripple effects. Employees take what they’ve learned inside the office, share with co-workers, and then take back to their homes and communities.”

"Taking simple actions can offer surprisingly large impacts.”

Without a sure-fire means of ensuring people work from home sustainably, though, is there a worry that remote work could create an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude?

“Making sustainable choices may be tougher when employees are working from home,” confirms Vicky Walker, director of people at Westfield Health.

“To maximise engagement, employers should ensure their sustainability agendas are consistently visible across the business – email reminders, posts on your intranet platform and regular all-company webinars to engage workers in what is being done by the business.”

At Schneider Electric UK&I, the world’s most sustainable company in 2021 according to Corporate Knights’ Global 100 Index, vice president of digital energy Kas Mohammed recommends customisable, centralised mobile applications – benefiting those at home and in the office: “Such apps, linked to building technology, can automatically update employees on factors including densely populated zones, meeting room bookings, comfort controls and more, all on a single platform.

"Furthermore, administrators and HR departments are able to receive instant feedback on new strategies to improve decision-making and employee satisfaction in the moment.”

Clearly communication is key. But with so much information out there – the LSE report is packed with powerful statistics, including that a ‘typical business user’ creates 135kg of CO2e from sending emails every year, roughly the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car – how does HR determine what to include? And how do you get key facts across in a captivating and relatable format that will boost behavioural change?  

The Salesforce strategy is to change behaviour through positive engagement. Moloney explains: “The best way to address carbon emissions from email, for example, is to positively engage the workforce with ways to reduce their email volumes.

"For example, with the addition of Slack, we have created a Digital HQ that has completely transformed the way we work for the better. Since January 2021 we’ve seen the number of emails we send decrease 46% as our teams turn to more collaborative, real-time communication.”

The environmental impact of remote work

Streaming and video calling: At the current rate, the carbon footprint of streaming and video chatting would take a 71,600-square-mile swath of forest – an area about 75% of the UK’s landmass – to offset it

Device usage: Use of the internet, computers, mobiles and tablets accounts for approximately 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions

Email: A “typical business” user, pre-Covid, created an estimated 135kg of CO2e from sending emails every year – the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car

At Capgemini, difficult-to-visualise concepts are broken down in e-learning courses and initiatives, such as the company’s ‘know your carbon footprint’ quiz. “This quiz helps raise awareness about the carbon impact of everyday activities, such as posting on social media, sending an email or making a video call,” says Robey.

“Employees are often surprised when they discover the carbon footprint of daily actions – and then want to know how they can reduce them. Taking simple actions can offer surprisingly large impacts.”

Communication aside, direct technology interventions are recommended in the Working From Home report.

How about disrupting the default? A Swedish study estimated that 30% of paper consumption is directly attributable to workers
accepting the default printing option – we tend to stick with the status quo. Looking to tech, electronic devices organisation-wide could be pre-programmed to eco-mode or to switch to standby, sleep or hibernate after a pre-specified time. 

Beyond this, how about a policy of online meetings with video off where possible? Cutting unnecessary virtual meetups? Kickstarting a campaign to reduce large email attachments?

Whatever the initiatives, there is a key role for HR here; helping communicate this knowledge to employees and explaining the reasons behind the initiatives. 


This piece was first published in HR magazine's 2022 Technology Supplement. Check out more from Technology with purpose here.