Remote Working: Better for the Environment? – Part 3
by Eve Loveman
This is the final article in this series on whether remote working is better for the environment. The previous article concluded that in most cases, taking account of home and office emissions and emissions from the daily commute, working from home will result in a reduction in an individual’s CO2 emissions overall. This is particularly likely to be true if an individual would normally travel to work by private car. This final article in the series sets the potential environmental benefits of remote working in the context of some of the wider health and lifestyle-related advantages and disadvantages of working from home.
A key advantage of remote working, aside from the potential environmental benefits, has been the increased flexibility that working from home has given many employees . In a study on the impacts of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Xiao et al. note that remote working may allow individuals to choose to work at times when they are most productive, creating “an individualized approach to their work-life balance that can promote a healthier lifestyle, a benefit for both physical and mental health” . Working from home has also opened up employment opportunities for some disabled workers . An Advisory Group report for the UK Committee on Climate Change suggested that giving employees the option to work from home part-time could be a feature of a transition to net zero that also centres on improving health and wellbeing .
Taking a more individualised approach to work-life balance and the work environment may also give individuals the opportunity to tackle their own environmental impact in other ways. Individuals who work from home have more control over their workspace, so, for example, may be able to reduce the emissions impact of their work environment by switching to a renewable energy supplier. This is speculation, but it might be thought that happier individuals with a better work-life balance would spend more time considering the environmental impacts of their choices, for instance, when buying consumer goods. However, whether these steps are taken in practice will depend upon an individual’s awareness of environmental issues and further research on the impact of working from home on sustainable behaviour change is necessary.
On the other hand, studies have noted that, in some cases, remote working has a negative impact on employee health and wellbeing. A study of Chinese employees identified ineffective communication, difficulty balancing work and family roles, procrastination and loneliness as four key challenges faced by those working from home during the pandemic . The Xiao et al. study found that individuals who were abruptly asked to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic reported a decline in overall physical and mental health status and an increased number of new physical and mental health issues . (Although, the authors of the study note that the data were obtained early in the coronavirus pandemic and may not represent the experiences of individuals working from home routinely .) Female workers and workers with an annual salary of less than $100,000 reported having two or more new physical and mental issues more often than male workers and workers with higher incomes .
These findings suggest that, in order to access the potential advantages of remote working, employees must be properly supported by their employers . Although the exact duties may vary by country, employers must fulfil their legal responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, including those who are working from home . The Xiao et al. study found that having higher satisfaction over indoor environment quality factors (e.g. lighting, temperature, noise etc.); a designated workspace and a good workspace set-up were all indicators of a lower chance of experiencing new physical and mental health issues . Ensuring employees have a proper workspace set-up and feel connected to colleagues may therefore go some way in creating a positive work from home experience .
A hybrid approach?
A hybrid approach may offer the flexibility of home working whilst alleviating problems of loneliness and isolation that may arise from full-time remote working as seen during the pandemic . Of adults currently working from home in the UK, the Office for National Statistics found that 85% wanted to adopt a hybrid approach of both office and remote working in the future, with improved work-life balance cited as the greatest positive of remote working . Of course, not everyone can work from home, and those who do tend to be in better paid jobs . Nevertheless, these findings suggest that, if implemented with appropriate support to create a healthy work environment, hybrid working policies could be one part of a package of measures taken to tackle the climate crisis by reducing emissions, whilst also aiming to improve employee health and well-being.
 Business and individual attitudes towards the future of homeworking, UK: April to May 2021, Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/businessandindividualattitudestowardsthefutureofhomeworkinguk/apriltomay2021 (accessed on 20/09/21).
 Xiao et al., 2021, Impacts of Working From Home During COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical and Mental Well-Being of Office Workstation Users, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Volume 63, Number 3, doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000002097.
 Frances Ryan, “Remote working has been life-changing for disabled people, don’t take it away now”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/02/remote-working-disabled-people-back-to-normal-disability-inclusion (accessed 26/08/2021).
 Boyce et al. on behalf of the UK Health Expert Advisory Group, 2020, Sustainable Health Equity: Achieving a Net-Zero UK, Advisory Group Report for the UK Committee on Climate Change, https://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/resources-reports/sustainable-health-equity-achieving-a-net-zero-uk.
 Wang et al., 2020, Achieving Effective Remote Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Work Design Perspective, Applied Psychology, Volume 70, Issue 1, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12290.
 “Protect home workers”, UK Health and Safety Executive, https://www.hse.gov.uk/toolbox/workers/home.htm (accessed 10/10/21).
 Richard Partington, “Most people in UK did not work from home in 2020, says ONS”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/17/home-working-doubled-during-uk-covid-pandemic-last-year-mostly-in-london (accessed 20/09/21).