In September 2019, e-commerce giant Shopify launched a Sustainability Fund, committing to invest at least $5 million every year into technology and projects to fight climate change. At the time of the announcement, the company couldn’t have anticipated that less than a year later, in May 2020, they would decide that their workforce would be digital-by-default, a move spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Working remotely would now be the norm for its employees, and it would change the way Shopify looked at its own sustainability efforts.
Shopify was not alone in allowing employees to work from home indefinitely. It joined other companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Square, in switching to remote-first. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quick to claim that the shift to remote work could be good for the environment, but the question remains: As morning commutes turn from a drive to the office into a walk from a bed to a desk, and as running one building’s central AC turns into the use of thousands of window units, is working from home actually better for the environment? While many companies may tout that it is, the answer is not so simple, and with remote work seemingly here to stay, its environmental footprint is something corporations need to consider.
“We don’t have any definitive way of accounting”
In shifting to remote-first, Shopify Sustainability Fund director Stacy Kauk says that the company’s physical office space will be “reimagined to reflect a digital-by-default mindset.” In other words, Shopify will likely downsize its office footprint as fewer employees come into work. But while reducing the use of office buildings—and by extension the energy it takes to power the lights, appliances, and electronics inside—might seem like it would shrink the company’s environmental footprint, it will instead spread emissions to the home offices of more than 5,000 employees around the world.
According to HR expert and industry analyst Josh Bersin, the work-from-home trend in many industries is here to stay, even after COVID-19. “There’s an incredibly large increase in the number of people working from home,” he says. “It went from something like 40% of employees were allowed to work at home [before the pandemic] to somewhere around 60 to 70% now are working at home or working at home some of the time.”
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Shopify sees its remote work policy as an opportunity for a grand environmental experiment. The company plans to calculate and compare its 2019 office-based emissions to its new digital-first footprint. “We’ll document and measure the ripple effects as our employees adapt to remote work, and open-source our learnings to remove friction for others looking to make climate-conscious decisions in a work-from-home world,” Kauk says.
But this gets to why that question of remote work’s environmental impact is so tricky: There’s no definitive way to measure that change in environmental footprint. According to Cynthia Cummis, director of private sector climate mitigation at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, “Unfortunately, we don’t have any definitive way of accounting.”
New Office, New Footprint
To make that calculation, Shopify will have to take into account an entirely different scale of factors. “We now effectively have more than 5,000 offices—one per employee—scattered around the globe, with different heating systems, different energy grids, and each employee making different decisions now that they’re untethered from a central office,” Kauk says.
She cites a recent study by IOPscience, which reviewed 39 studies about the climate impacts of teleworking. Twenty-six of those studies suggest that working from home reduces energy usage, and eight found that it could increase, or have the same impact on, energy use. Those results varied based on what activities were included and excluded. For example, some studies calculated energy usage for a single person, while others looked at a percentage of the population. Most studies focused on a narrow range of impacts, such as commuter travel, because they’re easier to measure—but by only focusing on one impact, they exclude all others. Additionally, factors such as office buildings often having more sophisticated energy management systems than homes may not be taken into account.
Most companies do not include emissions resulting from remote work in their emissions calculations, according to Cummis. But they should. “[They need to consider] the increased electricity use from running more air-conditioning and more electricity for your computer and other equipment that you have at home, as well as temperature and climate control in your home,” she says.
Some companies may address this through new perks. Renewable energy platform Arcadia started offering clean energy as a work-from-home benefit, even subsidizing employees’ higher monthly bills. But post-COVID-19, Cummis sees a world where many companies rent out a small office space where employees come in occasionally, using a hot-desk system. “I would assume that companies moving towards smaller office space or no office space would lead to less overall emissions. Because I assume for people working from home [there would be an] incremental increase, they might just use a little more capacity for their computer.” Climate control for your home is probably a smaller task than in the office, she adds, though she hasn’t seen any credible assessments.
Bersin, however, cautions that offices may not be downsized despite fewer employees on the premises, because of social distancing requirements. “Originally I thought a lot of these office buildings are going to be empty, and these commercial real estate companies are going to go out of business,” he says. “But I don’t know if that’s true, because the people that do come into the office are further spaced apart.”
He has also seen companies such as Facebook explore pod locations—smaller offices close to the homes of a number of employees where they could gather—rather than operating a big company campus. This might reduce employee commute times but would change the amount of office space being used.
Another confounding factor? Driving time. While reduced commutes might lower emissions levels, Cummis says that many people use their commutes to run errands, and that if they have to make special trips to complete them then there may not be much of a difference in driving overall.
Right now, Kauk is still exploring how to measure the difference in Shopify’s digital-first footprint. “We have gathered employee electricity usage data to estimate emissions and analyze trends. We are also exploring the ripple effects that remote work can have when people make decisions on where they chose to live [whether urban or rural] and their transportation choices,” she says. “For example, people may choose to live outside of urban centers since they no longer need to commute to the office, but then they decide to buy a car and have to drive further to complete errands or attend social gatherings.”
Key to measuring the impact of remote work en masse is finding what Cummis calls the baseline. If workers were already taking public transport, for instance, and weren’t running the AC in their homes during the summer, would the emissions from working from home be significant? Probably not.
The challenge of measuring the environmental impact of the shift is gargantuan. Still, Cummis says there is value in just asking the question. “It is encouraging to see that lots of companies are thinking about it. If they want to be around for many years, they need to think about it.”