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Remote Work and its Impact on Sustainability

While the pandemic has shown us the impact of remote work on how companies and employees work, it is also important to understand how remote work affects the environment. With the dire warnings in the IPCC report that preceded the COP26 conference held last month and as more companies adopt a hybrid or fully remote work environment, this becomes an opportunity for businesses to do their part in protecting the environment.

Companies can benefit financially from a remote work environment, whether fully remote or a hybrid approach, from paying for less office space to using it to attract talent working in other locations around the world or who require more flexibility than a traditional workplace. Employees in turn benefit from the flexibility of working remotely and may feel much more supported by their employers.

But in addition to these financial benefits, remote work can also align with environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards and goals for businesses and in fact, remote work supports about half of the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). In this article, we will be highlighting SDGs 3, 11, and 13 – the three SDGs that our programs and services are aligned with.

SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

SDG 3.4 aims to promote mental health and well-being, which can be achieved through remote work.

Research has shown that 70% of employees desire a hybrid work model and given the great ‘return to office’ this fall and into winter next year, it is no surprise that this will be the new norm. According to FlexJobs’ 2019 Annual Survey, 78% of people think that a flexible job would allow them to be healthier physically and mentally, and 86% said their stress levels would decrease. This is because remote work can promote a better work-life balance. Instead of being stuck in traffic for at least an hour a day, employees have been using that time and energy to focus on exercising, preparing meals, napping, or doing other things that can reduce stress.

Likewise, some people believe that they can focus better at home as there are fewer distractions working at home than in an office. Reducing the friction between work and life can empower individuals to create their own schedules and lifestyle.

SDG 11: Make cities & human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable

Remote work has the same potential impact on air quality as planting an entire forest of 91 million trees.

COVID-19 is not a disruptor, but an accelerator of trends. Remote working is not only reshaping the way we work, but also our lifestyle in terms of promoting safety, resiliency, inclusivity, and sustainability.

Most professional jobs are in the central core or the downtown of a city. Prior to COVID-19, employees had no choice but to either endure a long commute from their hometown or live in an expensive rental closer to their workplaces.

Remote work allows individuals to have options for housing locations that are more affordable and further from the workplace (i.e., living in smaller, rural areas), reducing the need to live in the city – especially for families with younger children, older people, and those who may not have the financial means to live downtown.   

Additionally, remote working has greatly reduced traffic congestion. During the first lockdown in Toronto that started in March 2020, daily car traffic decreased to 44% of baseline volumes, reducing the emission of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the out-of-pocket expenditures on gas and maintenance for individuals, and the need for significant road maintenance.

Cities like Boston are offering tax breaks to companies for every employee who works remotely to reduce traffic congestion. After all, traffic jams cost the U.S. economy $78 billion per year in productivity. More money back to businesses and less traffic is a win-win situation, which in turn contributes to improving the environment in the city.

Finally, if remote work means fewer cars and less congestion on the roads, this could hopefully lead to fewer car accidents, making roads safer. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that almost 39,000 people died from traffic accidents in 2020, which is the largest number of fatalities since 2007. Likewise in Ontario, while car accidents were down by 26% during the same period, the province saw a 22% increase in its traffic fatality rate.

SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change & its impacts

Metropolitan areas like Toronto are “powerhouses of economic growth” – contributing about 60% of global gross domestic product (GDP). However, before COVID-19, cities were also accountable for roughly 70% of global carbon emissions and more than 60% of resource use. The sources of these GHGs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are primarily from buildings (42.8%) and cars (34.3%). Remote work can help reduce these emissions, which in turn combats climate change and its impacts.

According to FlexJobs’ 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report, the 3.9 million people who worked remotely 50% of the time in 2017 resulted in taking 617,000 cars off the road and saving 3 million tons of GHGs just from not commuting.

The carbon footprint of a company can also be diminished by reducing the use of electricity and heating and cooling an office building. According to Global Workplace Analytics, office equipment energy consumption rate is twice that of home office equipment energy consumption.

If companies had an environmental policy in place in reducing their carbon emissions, it is reported that 70% of employees would see their companies in a more favourable light.

Working remotely can contribute significantly to sustainability and reducing climate change         

Working remotely not only benefits employees and employers, but also does the environment good. When companies consider the environmental benefits of full or hybrid remote work, they are actively working towards not only achieving the UN SDGs but also helping to mitigate the deleterious effects of climate change, which have grave effects and costs on society as a whole.

The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to reinvent how we live, work, and respond to climate change. Remote work has allowed us to have a better work-life balance, increased employee productivity while reducing our carbon footprint. While a lot of work still needs to be done to address climate change, it’s great to know that just by working from home, we are making a difference already, one day at a time.

Want to see how you can take remote working to the next level? Join us on Wednesday, December 8, 2021, from 1 – 2 PM EST for a free webinar on how to make the most of the flexibility and sustainability of teleworking. Click HERE to register.


Image Credit: KEHN HERMANO from Pexels

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