Turning your home into your office doesn’t just mean getting to show up to work in your pajamas. Telecommuting can also help the environment by cutting commutes, reducing wear and tear on roads, and allowing companies to downsize their office spaces. If everyone who wanted to telecommute in the U.S. was able to do so even half-time, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to permanently eliminating the commutes of every worker in New York State, Global Workplace Analytics found.
Flexjobs, a job search database for people seeking flexible work, talked to Xerox, Dell, and Aetna, companies that all have robust flex work policies, to find out what kind of environmental savings were produced by not requiring workers to be in the office full-time. They discovered that those companies’ flexible work arrangements translated into 95,294 metric tons less of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road.
Aetna began embracing flexible work policies two decades ago. Currently, about 43% of its staff either works at home or in another virtual environment. Not having to show up to the office every day means those workers drove 127 million fewer miles and saved 5.3 millions gallons of gas in 2014, FlexJobs found.
Telecommuting is also common at Dell, where 20% of the employees are full-time telecommuters and another 20% occasionally work remotely. The company’s flexible work programs not only reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6,700 metric tons, but also saved the company $12 million in 2014.
“Our team members love the flexibility and the impact they’re having for the environment and the business,” said Mohammed Chahdi, the director of global HR services for Dell. That’s true across the board for remote workers. While a better work-life balance and cost savings were the biggest perks mentioned by current telecommuters, 47% also cited the eco-friendly aspects of working remotely as a benefit, a 2014 survey by Staples found.
At Xerox, 11% of employees participate in the Virtual Office program, which helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40,894 metric tons in 2014. While the company’s flex work arrangements grew out of a desire to make employees happier and more productive, it also “provides a great example of how targeting one pillar of sustainability, work life, will deliver benefits in the other sustainability pillars of environment and economics,” said Diane O’Connor, the vice president for global environment, health, safety and sustainability at Xerox.
Less need to fill up the tank and reduced carbon emissions are the obvious benefits of telecommuting. But remote workers are good for the environment in other ways, FlexJobs found. Those who work at home tend to use less paper, while a large remote workforce means companies can use smaller offices that require less energy to heat, cool, and power. The need for long-distance travel is also reduced, since many meetings can be conducted virtually.
The number of people telecommuting for more than one day a week grew roughly 80% from 2005 to 2012, according to Global Workplace Analytics. The combination of cost savings, more productive employees, and environmental benefits could encourage more companies to expand telecommuting options in the future.
“Companies are always looking for win-wins when it comes to corporate social responsibility,” said Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs. “Shifting to a more flexible, productive, and cost-beneficial way of working, by telecommuting, is certainly a win-win because it happens to greatly impact the environment as well.”
Employees who want to make the case for a shift to telework in their own workplace should focus on the potential cost savings, Fell advised.
“Explain that you’ll be using less paper and fewer electronics like printers, faxes. Explain that they won’t need to pay to heat, cool, or light your office,” she said. “Tell them that, at home, you’ll be regulating your own heating, cooling, and light use, opting for natural light, fans, and layers of clothing over using energy.”
Just because working from home is has the potential for some pretty significant greenhouse gas saving doesn’t mean that it always benefits the environment, though. “It’s quite possible to generate more energy from the building standpoint by telecommuting, than you save,” professor Patricia Mokhtarian of the University of California, Davis, told Marketplace. Moving from working in an efficient, solar-powered office to a large, drafty home heated by energy from coal or oil could reduce or negate the benefits of a shorter commute.
Telecommuters can also take steps to go green at home by purchasing used furniture and sustainable office products, taking advantage of natural daylight rather than turning on overhead lights, and turning down the thermostat, said Fell.