As head of remote at Doist, I live and breathe remote work every single day. The core of what I do involves advocating for the future of work, and ensuring our distributed infrastructure is operating at peak efficiency. I approach this with enthusiasm because I strongly believe remote work can have a positive impact on individuals, organizations, and most importantly, our planet.
Remote work offers individuals flexibility over where they live and work, while companies gain access to global talent pools and cost savings. But the often overlooked element of remote work’s impact on sustaining our planet is something I am extremely passionate about, and hope to shed some light on here.
In 2015, the United Nations unanimously adopted a series of sustainable development goals (SDGs) designed to help achieve “peace and prosperity for the people and the planet, now and into the future,” by 2030. They are lofty goals, and span all aspects of our life here on earth–from ridding the planet of hunger and poverty, to preventing a climate disaster, and achieving gender and race equality. To achieve these goals we’ll need to rethink our approach to the way we live, consume, treat each other, and work. Yes, work.
The way we have been approaching work since the industrial revolution has contributed heavily to carbon emissions, inequalities, and work-life imbalance. Each of these are directly connected to the UN SDGs, and we have an opportunity (read: obligation) to change that going forward, and create a lasting impact on the environment and the well-being of future generations.
I won’t claim that remote work is the key to accomplishing these objectives, but then again, there is no silver bullet. We’re much more likely to achieve these goals via a series of 1% improvements than a few sweeping changes. With the migration to remote, we have the opportunity to contribute our 1%.
In the remainder of this article we’ll dive deeper on how remote work can be a force for good, and how it should be approached in order to positively influence the trajectory of the UN initiatives. This is not a comprehensive list, but instead a high-level overview with some relatively easily implementable best practices, which if adopted by the masses, would pay massive dividends.
What are the sustainable development goals?
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and well-being
- Quality education
- Gender equality
- Clean water and sanitation
- Affordable and clean energy
- Decent work and economic growth
- Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
- Reduced inequalities
- Sustainable cities and communities
- Responsible consumption and production
- Climate action
- Life below water
- Life on land
- Peace, justice, and strong institutions
- Partnerships for the goals
Perhaps the most obvious of these opportunities is the effect remote work can have on our environment. The easy example to reach for in this regard relates to the commute: fewer people working in offices means fewer people commuting to work in gas guzzling vehicles.
”Considering the rebound effects of remote work on carbon emissions, studies have shown that working remotely is more sustainable than working in the office.” –David Sciamma, Dr. Remote
However, commuting is only one piece of the pie, and in fact, we’ll later address how it may not actually be as powerful as it seems on the surface.
The average U.S. citizen spends 55 minutes per day commuting to and from work, and consequently emits approximately 2.7 tons of CO2 per year in the process. According to Global Workplace Analytics, even just converting to ‘‘half-time telecommuting could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by over 51 million metric tons a year—the equivalent of taking all New York’s commuters off the road.”
Furthermore, a lower reliance on cars could have secondary effects, such as:
- Lower demand for gas powered vehicles, which would positively influence the adoption of public transportation.
- Families that currently have two cars may only need one or someone with one car may opt to eliminate that expense completely.
- We can significantly cut maintenance emissions with less traffic on the roadways. The total CO2 emissions from constructing, maintaining, and destroying a one-kilometer-long road during a 50 year period is 18,596 tons of CO2, and 57 percent of this is due to maintenance.
As people become comfortable with working online, the reliance on business travel will decrease. It’s estimated that business travel alone is responsible for 20% of the total 1.04 billion tons of annual emissions by aviation travel, and The Wall Street Journal expects business air travel to drop between 19% and 36% due to the change in business practices developed during the pandemic.
Venturing beyond fossil fuels consumption, how we consume other valuable resources is also directly impacted by our working habits.
The UN Development Programme (UNEP) reports we produce more than 930 million tons of food that ends up in the trash each year, which directly contributes to 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, if food waste alone were a country, it would be the world’s third largest carbon emitter.
As work migrates away from an office, people tend to prepare more of their meals at home, as opposed to eating out and grabbing to-go food. Cooking at home is generally connected to better portion control and saving leftovers, as well as results in control over whether the goods are locally produced and sustainably sourced.
Furthermore, when we eat out we tend to utilize single-use plastics, like utensils, plates, and cups, many of which are not recycled and end up in landfills and our oceans. In fact, Globalgoal.org projects that the world produces 381 million tons of plastic waste every year—a number that will likely double by 2034. Only 9% is typically recycled, and nearly 5% ends up in the ocean. By working remotely, we can use sustainable products and cut down on single-use plastics, which can have a massive impact on the biosphere.
Finally, let’s consider the very basic principle of paper usage. It’s estimated that even in today’s highly digital workplace, the average office worker uses approximately 10,000 sheets of paper per year, of which roughly 40 percent of that ends up in the trash on the same day. Though economists have yet to nail down an exact figure, it’s clear that paper usage is significantly reduced by digitalizing the exchange of documents, which is commonplace in a remote environment.
”We should promote remote work because it is part of the solution for climate change” –Guillaume Raverat, Dr. Remote
If we’re to accomplish the SDGs, changing our consumption habits will have to be a core part of the plan, and where we work from has a direct effect on the biosphere we desire.
Democratizing access to opportunity online has already driven billions of dollars in income to workers in developing countries, impoverished and rural areas, and struggling local economies. This has leveled the playing field for tens of millions of people around the globe by reducing inequalities and sparking innovation and economic growth.
A real-world example of this was shared via Running Remote, the world’s largest event focused on remote work. After teaching himself to be a graphic designer online, Fahim overcame his muscular disorder and pulled himself out of poverty in Bangladesh, by freelancing on Fiverr. #HireFahim went viral, and he has since gone on to purchase a piece of land for his family and inspire countless others who face economic and personal challenges with regards to finding employment.
Na’amal is another great example. They are leveraging remote work to train and employ refugees from countries across the Middle East giving talented individuals access to opportunities they were otherwise robbed of due to circumstances completely out of their control.
These are just a few specific examples but imagine the impact on the global economy when entire populations are given access to opportunity. Aside from the obvious personal benefits for these individuals, fewer resources will be needed in terms of international support and aid, and local governments will have the tax revenue to reinvest in better infrastructure and promote commerce.
Redistributing the wealth throughout the world can lead to massive shifts in emerging economies, but equally so in our own backyards. Someone looking for a job in a community that has fallen on hard times will be able to find work much faster when provided with global opportunities beyond their postal code. This reduces the time spent on unemployment and the burden that creates for the government and taxpayers. Lower unemployment levels naturally stimulate the economy and stoke the fire of innovative expansion.
Yes, the economic impact of migrating to a more decentralized global workforce will be incredibly powerful. But what truly excites me are the secondary effects these economic changes will have on us as a society.
Sustainability is often associated with environmental and economic impact, but the SDGs call for deep change on a much more human level as well. Gender and race equality, the abolition of hunger, access to education and healthcare, and an overall higher quality of life, are all key aspects of the truly sustainable society we hope to live in.
According to a report by Bjursell, Bergmo-Prvulovic, and Hedegaard,
“Research about telework and lifelong learning has the potential to contribute to sustainable working life in terms of providing more flexible arrangements for employees and to support the lifelong learning that takes place in contexts such as the office, home, online meetings, and virtual reality.”
Dekenberger, Way, and Pearce backed this up, citing “remote has the potential to help people out of poverty, reduce inequality overall, and provide those communities with viable means of employment security, now, and in the future.”
SDG #11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, calls for people to have access to affordable housing, and as cities become overpopulated and property prices continue to rise, this becomes less attainable for the majority of our population. Remote can help reverse this trend, providing incomes to people in rural areas and the option to stay closer to family and friends, further improving quality of life and access to affordable housing.
In those smaller communities, it’s easier to have a greater relative impact via community service, and with so much time saved on commuting to work, there is more time to invest into that local community. On a household level, primary caregivers have more flexibility over their schedules and therefore get to spend more time with their children, which directly affects happiness levels and perpetuates a cycle of positive family dynamics.
The increased flexibility also provides an opportunity to reinvest your resources and energy into a healthier lifestyle. Fewer hours in stressful commutes and more time for exercise and preparing healthy meals can have a direct effect on heart disease and mental health, which collectively costs our economies hundreds of billions of dollars and leads to the loss of millions of lives each year.
According to the WHO, 90% of us are regularly breathing air that exceeds pollution guidelines in overpopulated urban centers, and every year more than 4 million people die as a result of poor air quality. Meanwhile, traffic accidents account for nearly 95,000 injuries and as many as 1,500 deaths, each year. It’s safe to say that air quality, accidents, and death, may be contributing factors when considering improving quality of life.
In the U.S. alone, remote work is already directly responsible for saving nearly $500 million in traffic accident costs every year. If we converted just another 50 million remote-compatible jobs to just half-time remote, each year we would prevent 1500 traffic related deaths in nearly 100,000 traffic accidents, and save over $11 billion in related expenses.
It goes far beyond just savings, remote work creates opportunities in our society as well. Primary caregivers, disabled individuals, and retirees can all improve their quality of life via the widespread adoption of remote work.
If we’re to achieve gender equality, then addressing the pay inequality gap is absolutely necessary. According to Pew Research Center, “on average, females make only 3 percent less than men online, compared to approximately 20-25 percent less in most traditional workplaces in Western economies.” A study by Remote.co also reflected that remote teams are roughly four times more likely to employ women CEOs than the traditional work-from-office S&P 500.
In my experience, this can at least somewhat be attributed to a higher emphasis on deliverables and results in remote organizations, and less emphasis on office politics and presential inputs, such as hours worked or leave taken.
On a fundamental level, remote work affords women (and men, actually) greater flexibility to raise a family while pursuing a career, creating more balance at home and subsequently, in the workplace. With more control over their schedule, parents can work when it suits their family dynamics best, and reduce the burden on women to be the primary caregiver and sacrifice their careers in favor of parenthood.
Remote work can also provide opportunities for our elderly population to continue working in their later years by offering flexible work arrangements for those that become physically unable to go to an office. Two thirds of retireeswant to continue working, if they were able to do so in a way that meshed well with their physical capabilities and offered some flexibility so they could enjoy retirement. Remote can provide that opportunity.
Not only would this raise the standard of living and quality of life for our elderly population, but it may also help solve a real economic issue–funding the future retirements of our younger population. As the tax paying workforce decreases over time and our retired population increases, there is an imbalance in the need for care and the resources available to do so, and extending the number of years people have access to work can help mitigate this challenge.
These benefits also extend to people facing physical disabilities, and those who can’t afford to live in expensive urban centers. Eliminating long and arduous commutes alleviates a great deal of pressure on this segment of our population, and provides opportunity based on skill set, not postal code.
Finally, as we have learned through the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work makes our society more resilient, as people can continue to earn an income through natural disasters, political unrest, pandemics, and other such catastrophes. If we are less dependent on location, then as sea levels rise and political and economic situations fluctuate, we can maintain a form of stability and continued status quo.
The Remote = Good fallacy
All this said, it’s not quite as easy as: Remote work is more sustainable than office work. There are counterarguments to this, some of which are valid and some of which just require intentional counter-action.
For example, as Greentree states,
“Research shows that remote work lowers greenhouse gas emissions associated with commuting, however, remote employees likely make more journeys that are typically paired with commuting (going to the supermarket, picking children up from school, visiting friends, etc.), and these activities contribute to the growth of non-commuting travel. That said, the emissions from non-commuting travel are still anticipated to be fewer than those from commuting.”
We also need to consider factors such as:
- The impact of centralized office-based utility consumption, as opposed to multiple work-from-home offices and their cumulative energy consumption.
- The emissions from remote team company retreats, which can quickly negate carbon savings.
- The negative repercussions of potentially creating an economic divide in emerging economies, between those with access to remote work, and those that do not have such access.
- The impact on quality of life for the percentage of the population that actually reports feeling isolated by remote work.
Like most aspects of remote work, intentionality and creativity will make the difference between success, mediocrity, and failure. A concerted effort on the organizational and individual levels will need to be made if remote work is to be rolled out in a sustainable way, en masse.
If you wish to implement a sustainable strategy that can truly take advantage of the pros and minimize the cons of remote work, here are a few actionable steps you can take:
- When companies choose to travel, they can choose central locations to minimize the total distance traveled, and opt for fuel efficient transportation like trains or airlines utilizing biofuels, as often as possible.
- It’s also possible for those companies choosing to travel to offset their carbon emissions by calculating the estimated carbon footprint of their collective journey, and then supporting an organization that works to offset carbon emissions via carbon buybacks. While some might claim this is greenwashing a problem, in-person meetups are a critical function to support team sustainability, and therefore a fair trade off when we consider the alternative—doing nothing.
- During team travel, companies can implement measures to reduce food waste and support local food sources, eliminate the use of single use plastics, and choose eco-friendly lodging, amongst many other activities.
- Organizations may choose to purposefully implement a D&I strategy that aims to diversify their leadership and workforce.
- Companies can create clear policies which encourage employees to disconnect from work and coach them on how to create a clear distinction between their work life and their real life.
- Implementing best practices that revolve around transparency, trust and asynchronous communication are the building blocks for creating such a remote work environment. These should be baked into the foundation of any distributed organization.
- Companies can provide their employees work from home perks that encourage a separation between work spaces and personal space – like in-home office equipment upgrades and paid coworking spaces.
- Companies can offset any overages in carbon emissions, for those that actually produce greater emissions than they do working from the office.
- Governments can also take action—like those of Portugal and Belgium—which have already started adopting laws to prohibit employers from being able to force their employees to work after normal business hours.
To start, simply being aware and creating an intentional plan connected to the SDGs can be an incredibly powerful first step toward building the future we want to live in. Again, it’s not the silver bullet, but remote work will certainly be a contributing factor as we evolve our sustainable strategy.
Chase Warrington is the Head of Remote at Doist and has worked remotely for over 12 years. To provide additional subject matter expertise and research for this article, Chase partnered with Kai Greentree, the founder of Greentree Sustainability.