We at Werk often talk about structured flexibility as a moral imperative. We also like to point out it can be a financial boon. But could flexibility actually help the environment? Could access to flexibility—the flex types Remote, DeskPlus, and TravelLite, in particular—help combat the "inconvenient truth" that is climate change?
Absolutely, and the logic is simple. Less commuting and less travel means less energy use and less air pollution, which in turn mean less climate change.
Remote work supports seven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by 193 countries, multiple of which deal with environmental issues. Goal 7, for example, is to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all." Remote work helps reduce our overall energy use—since transport accounts for 29 percent of our energy use in the United States and since workers are more likely to curb their energy consumption if they're paying for it. Goal 13, meanwhile, is to "take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts." If people are commuting less, they're also reducing carbon emissions, one of the biggest culprits in climate change.
Indeed, an overwhelming body of research links remote work to a reduction in pollution, as Lifewire notes. If the 53 million Americans who can work from home did, for example, the decrease of carbon emissions would be the equivalent of taking more than 27 million vehicles off the road. An "ecommute" pilot program from the early 2000s showed that a group of only 4,500 workers working at home an average of 1.8 days per the work reduces pollution by 25 tons per year. And the U.S. Patent Office's 2007 telework program, which encompassed 3,600 workers, helped save more than 613,000 gallons of gas and prevented 9,600 tons of carbon emissions.
Take Dell as another example. The computing company has given U.S. employees access to location variety, and as of June 2016, the average Dell employee worked from home 9.7 times per month, compared to the U.S. average of 2.3 times per month. As a result, Dell saved an estimated 25 million kWh of energy and avoided 13,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over three years. This policy mitigated around 1.15 metric tons of CO2 for each employee, even after compensating for "rebound effects," like increased energy consumption at home. And, by the way, the policy also saved the company $39.5 million.
"When a company is considering a work-from-home program or telecommuting or remote work, sustainability is probably not the primary reason why," John Pflueger, Dell's Principal Environmental Strategist, told Environmental Leader in an interview. "The primary reasons are issues related more to work-life balance and being the sort of employer that the 21st-century employee has come to expect. But we found sustainability-related benefits are an important side effect."