In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations undertook extraordinary measures to quickly secure the health and safety of their workforce. With new measures effectively in place, many companies are now reimagining their future ways of working. Some leading companies like Goldman Sachs and Facebook are declaring remote work the new normal for at least for part of their employee base. Others, like JP Morgan, are already shedding office space with the assumption that many employees will continue to work from home (WFH) after the crisis. As companies consider economic and cultural factors in these decisions, they must also take environmental factors into account.
The environmental impact of working from home is more nuanced than it may appear at first. While carbon emissions from employee commutes may drop precipitously in regions where employees would otherwise drive to the office, these same employees are likely using more energy at home. The carbon impact is more intense when homes are inefficient, are connected to carbon-intensive grids, or rely heavily on non-renewable natural gas. As companies consider relinquishing direct control of the spaces in which employees work, they’ll need a new approach to evaluate this shift in emissions.
At ENGIE Impact, we’re committed to transparently sharing our own emissions reduction journey in a way that can help others transform as well. Like most organizations, COVID-19 has significantly altered our operations, forcing us to reconsider our new environment within our broader transformation efforts. Currently 95% of our teams are working from home. Simultaneously, we are planning for what a partial return to office could look like pre-vaccine and for our longer-term ways of working.
To understand the carbon impact of our return-to-office scenarios, we leveraged our own team of carbon accountants and workplace energy experts to assess the true impact of our own WFH transition. While WFH has reduced our carbon footprint from commuting, we found that we needed to consider several additional location-specific factors in order to understand the true overall impact.
Our experts surveyed our entire office footprint and completed an in-depth analysis of two of our larger locations. Here are some key findings, which we hope will prove helpful to other organizations seeking to strike an ideal balance of office-vs-WFH work.
Our study and others indicate that companies should consider a flexible approach to their workspaces.
We are currently in the first wave of the pandemic, but leading researchers are predicting subsequent waves that may require future shelter-in-place periods. Investments have already been made to enable a more virtual workplace by companies. As companies plan to return to office in the short-term, they have the opportunity to maximize what we’ve learned about the long-term positive impacts to healthy, low-carbon and resilient workplaces.
One client in the financial industry saw a 100% reduction in business travel, saving ~1600 tCO2e practically overnight. To lock in these benefits post-COVID, they’ve been wisely investing in technology and behavioral change to build a more flexible and resilient workforce. For this client, our analysis did show an increase in emissions associated to working from home, which did not offset the decrease in Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions from office buildings. We are now helping them strike the ideal balance between office-based and remote work, using the same approach we use internally for ENGIE Impact. Based on the results of our analyses, we made recommendations for operational, environmental and energy-related actions to optimize costs, health and carbon.
Others are finding further benefits for employee retention and talent acquisition. These clients report their employees enjoy working from home, are more productive, and don’t miss the commute. And while managers may need to adapt their styles for monitoring employees’ work, they also can now draw from a much larger talent pool when hiring.
At this early stage, the data suggests that a mindful balance of office-vs-WFH work is something all companies should consider, both for carbon and productivity benefits. But, as our analysis reveals, the trade-offs are not always intuitive, so running the numbers is essential to making the right decisions for the environment, your employees and the bottom line.
To learn more about our studies’ assumptions or initiate an analysis for your own operations, contact us.
The authors would like to thank Asma Ghazouani, and Neetu Mysore for their contributions to this article.