Working Remotely: The Future of Sustainability?
Spotify, Amazon, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Hitachi, Salesforce, Oracle, the list goes on. In recent weeks with the spread of COVID-19, many companies have transitioned to remote work models and restricted employee travel to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (Hadden, 2020). For the now foreseeable future, employees may find themselves having to adapt to remote circumstances. With the current status of the pandemic, shutdowns around the world may last for months to come. While recognizing the incredibly devastating effects COVID-19 has already caused, it can be acknowledged that the world as we know it may never be the same after this pandemic. With the rise of remote working and living digitally, the future may hold many more opportunities to live our lives electronically, including telecommuting.
Telecommuting in itself is a fairly modern model and could potentially provide a look at the future of work and of sustainability. Telecommuting positions came to rise in the1970s but became significantly more popular following the financial crisis in 2008. As more and more employees work from home, moving to a remote model could allow companies and employees to not only improve productivity but to contribute to a greener, more sustainable, future.
Telecommuting can contribute to sustainability by cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States comes from the transportation sector; in 2017, 28.7% of these emissions came from transportation (EPA, 2017). Greenhouse gases absorb solar energy and trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. They contribute to the rise in global temperature and are a core factor in our ever-changing climate (Nunez, 2019). Cars emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (Green Vehicle Guide, 2020). These gases are released through the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil (from which gasoline is derived), and natural gas (Enzler, 2003). Burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases can be harmful to the environment and, on a mass scale, can accelerate the warming of our planet. One way to lower these kinds of emissions is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in vehicles and to reduce travel demand (EPA, 2017). Telecommuting helps slow global warming because employees are not burning fossil fuels to get to work on a daily basis. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average car emits 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Assuming that the average worker travels 30 miles to and from work, telecommuting could reduce transportation-related emissions by 69% each year (Pasini, 2018). To put this on a nationwide scale, Global WorkPlace Analytics estimates that in the United States, telecommuting could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54 million tons per year – the equivalent of taking 10 million cars or the entire New York State workforce off the road (GlobalWorkPlace, 2018).
Cutting down on transportation also means a huge reduction in oil use. Making an effort to emitless greenhouse gases means also making an effort to burn less fossil fuels like oil. In 2019, Americans used nearly 390 million gallons of gas per day (EIA, 2019). This comes down to about 1.2 gallons of gas per American per day. Assuming 24.7 million Americans work from home work from home (Bureau Labor Statistics, 2018), remote workers could potentially save up to 30 million gallons of gas per workday. That’s 744 million miles, or enough to go around the sun almost 25 times (Pasini, 2018). One of the biggest sustainable advantages of remote working lies just in reducing transportation and its related fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Telecommuting also eliminates the need for energy and resources to be put into large commercial buildings. In 2018, the residential and commercial sector accounted for about 40% of total energy consumption in the US (EIA, 2018). To be more specific, office energy use itself is over twice that of home energy use (BusinessWire, 2018). Every day, just by going to work in a building, employees are using twice as much energy they could be using if they worked from home. In 2017, the 24.7 million employees that worked from home reduced overall US energy consumption by 3.3% that year (EIA, 2018). If 50% of the total workforce telecommuted, nearly $500 billion would be saved in electricity, real estate, and turnover (GlobalWorkPlace, 2018). The amount of energy that could be saved from these numbers is the equivalent of providing energy to 8.5 million homes.
Working remotely is the future of sustainability, and telecommuting positions have been on the rise for some time now. The availability of telecommuting positions has risen 115% over the past decade. Over 43% of Americans report working remotely some or all of the time (New York Times, 2017). Especially within real estate and mortgage, recruiting and human resources, and accounting and finance industries, remote working has become increasingly popular with each industry seeing 20% more remote job listings within the past 10 years. There are clear sustainable benefits to this rise, but of course, other factors are at play too. Telecommuters on average save more than employees working in an office. The average yearly savings for telecommuters is $4,000 more than a non-telecommuter. This is due to expenses like gas, parking, and dry cleaning. Telecommuting also on average saves employers about $11,000 a year due to flexible scheduling (CNNBusiness, 2017).
If more companies allowed for telecommuting positions, not only could it benefit the environment, but employers and employees as well. Part of the reason telecommuting has become so popular is due to the Great Recession and changing middle-class norms. One of the results of the financial crisis in 2008 was employers offering more flexible schedules and telecommuting positions. Additionally, the dated norms of the middle class have changed since the 1970’s, when telecommuting positions first became available. The image of one parent working and one staying at home has now been replaced with both parents working and more single-parent households in the picture. Telecommuting allows flexibility and options for these new middle-class families and households. If more companies allowed for telecommuting positions, not only could it benefit the environment, but employers and employees as well.
During these times, it is important to note that with the rise of telecommuting, there are disparities and gaps for workers who may not be able to transition as easily. Yes, many companies have encouraged employees to work from home and, if continued to do so, could make a very positive impact on the environment. But to have a rounded conversation around sustainability, inequality and lack of access to remote positions must be included in the conversation. For many offices, it is not hard to make the switch to remote work, but for over 34% of the U.S. workforce, this transition may be near impossible. Employees in food preparation, retail sales, construction, production, maintenance, and agriculture may not have the platforms to work online. Essential workers providing food and services to those sheltering in place do not have the ability to do their jobs from home. When thinking of the air travel industry, airlines rely on attendants, mechanics, pilots all being there (Merrefield, 2020).
The question then becomes, who gets to remote work? Advocating for sustainability requires looking through an environmental justice lens. Part of that lens is acknowledging that remote work being sustainable is dependent on the employee working mostly online. And working online is tied to education level and access to higher education. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 12% of high school graduates without a degree worked from home on a typical day, compared to 37% working online with a bachelors degree and 42% working online with an advanced degree. Differences in education greatly contribute to who gets to work remotely and therefore contribute to the future of sustainability (Merrefield, 2020).
Access to the internet is also a determining factor in who gets to telecommute. More than 21 million Americans do not have advanced broadband connections and the majority of those gaining access live in rural America. More than a quarter of rural americans and a third of Americans in Tribal Lands do not have access, compared to only 2% in urban areas (Merrefield, 2020).
Even going further, income helps determine who gets to have good internet connection and who doesn’t. Gaps in median income determine who has slow broadband access, advanced broadband access, and who has access at all to our now digital world. The point here is that, while remote working may be part of the future of sustainability, taking a look and recognizing that not all positions are created equal and neither is access to these positions represents overarching issues in the workforce and the economy.
The rise of COVID-19 is unprecedented and grim, to say the least. Opening up discussions about what a potential future may look like with more areas being under lockdown gives folks a break from reading the saddening daily realities of this pandemic. Talking about the future of remote work is an opportunity to think about what sustainable benefits telecommuting could have in the years to come. The way I see it, COVID-19 will change the world, permanently (Politico, 2020). It will impact the rise of telemedicine, living in a virtual reality, living digital lifestyles, electronic voting, and hopefully lead to taking experts and science seriously again, at least in the United States. We are on the brink of a new world and new forms of reform. The environment is part of the future, and a small way we can contribute sustaining it when this ends is by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and working from home more often. The current rise in telecommuting will likely be here to stay for the foreseeable future and even after the pandemic, living virtually may become a part of our daily lives. These can be scary times to live in, but looking at positive and sustainable possibilities for the future may give a little hope.
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