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Future of Work: Including the Environmental Impact


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With Earth Day last week, we saw plenty of discussion about the carbon footprint and energy demands of various new-economy, pandemic-driven activities. When it comes to the energy impact of the emerging remote-work models, the jury seems to be out.
A colleague called my attention to a U.K. website called Utility Bidder, which has a “Zoom Emissions” page claiming to show how much energy a Zoom call’s bandwidth typically might demand. You can adjust the calculator according to how much video you do, whether calls are 1:1 or multi-party, and typical video quality. I plugged in a guesstimate of my usage: 20 hours of video calls a week (Yikes!); three people per call (averaging between 1:1s and groups); and less than HD video quality. My result? A week of my life spent on video calls uses as much carbon as driving a car… 1.2 miles. Walk to CVS instead of driving, and I’ve carbon-offset my work for the week.
The Utility Bidder site suggests you could save the carbon impact of a video call by just sending an email instead. That’s probably good advice from a human perspective — spare everyone one more video call. But it’d take a lot of emails to offset that one-mile drive for me.
Now, consider the massive energy savings we’ll all have when we transition to the hybrid-work future, when all those cars are off the roads for good during rush hours. Right?
Well, that could be complicated too. An October 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health suggests that the energy savings from an individual working from home, say, three days a week, could be balanced out by other lifestyle choices that would increase their energy consumption —for example, using the savings of a telecommuting lifestyle to buy a bigger home. (Indeed, one consistent theme throughout the pandemic has been many workers’ need for more space to accommodate a more professional office-type setup in the home.)
In the paper, NIH reviewed existing studies on the topic of telecommuting’s energy demand and ultimately concluded that most of the literature does support the position that remote work saves energy. However, they also point out that the more recent studies show a more limited benefit, particularly when the research takes into account the kind of ripple or “rebound” effects mentioned above.
At the enterprise level, you’d have to take into account new sorts of rebound effects as you consider the types of potential change to office designs that my colleague Beth Schultz wrote about recently. Clearly these will vary with the enterprise, but hopefully enterprises will make sustainability one of the guiding principles as these spaces get built out and tradeoffs start getting made.
Similarly, many enterprises have talked about moving to “hub and spoke” model of office deployments around metro areas. I’ve yet to see any research on how such models’ balance of smaller, dispersed office spaces, (presumably) reduced commuting distances, and ripple effects in employee lives would wind up affecting energy use overall.
With so many factors to balance out, enterprises that are serious about limiting their carbon footprint will likely need to add their sustainability officers to the discussion about the future of the office.