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It All Begins At Home: The Remote Economy Shifts Environmental Impact (And What Companies Can Do About It)

Three young children sorting recyclable plastic into various containers.

With the pandemic sea change in workplaces, the tectonic plates undergirding the major landforms of our work life shifted from office-centric organizations to “home” offices, with many believing a hybrid model toggling between the two will become the predominant work arrangement in the future. We are already recognizing benefits to the environment, from fewer cars on the road commuting to work commuting to more bicycling and walking.

Since a significant amount of a company’s environmental footprint can be tied up in its physical offices, this change has big consequences for the measuring and reporting of impact as energy consumption and waste creation are effectively being exported to employees’ homes.

We thought it would be interesting to explore how businesses are responding to this “switch.” We wanted to discover if companies are helping employees “green up” their remote working arrangements. In particular, we wanted to see how companies are measuring this transference impact, inclusive of helping mitigate environmental impacts that once had their source point in the company office, but now take place in the den or a living room of a private residence.

Well-loved white bicycle leaning against house next to front door.

Spoiler Alert: Companies Aren’t Doing Very Much

We gained our insights principally from secondary sources, such as websites, with primary research findings derived from exchanges on social media and various web-user groups. What we found is that most companies, likely reeling from the suddenness of this changing dynamic, have been slow to acknowledge this shift of environmental impact (and associated costs) to the home office, with little support either financially or through educational resources.

We did, however, uncover a number of encouraging examples where companies, many of them small businesses, are embracing this transition, with early indications that European businesses are leading the way.

Ideas on the Homefront from Financial Compensation to Gamification

Pierre Dubuc, co-founder and CEO of OpenClassrooms, an online training and education platform, told us that his company is providing financial incentives for employees to green up their home offices. “We cover 10-20 euros per month of internet/electricity, but it goes up to 50 euros (about $60 U.S.) per month if you commit to an eco-friendly remote-from-home situation: recycling, water reduction, green electricity, etc.”

He said the company helps employees transition with resources and a partnership with a green electricity provider that offers them a discount. So far OpenClassrooms, which has 300 employees spread across France, the UK, and the US, has seen about 10-20 percent of its workforce take advantage of this new program, and Duboc says that participation is increasing.

The Standing CT Company Limited, a small business headquartered in the UK, has also just initiated a green-energy initiative for its 10 employees, all of whom either work remotely or on mobile CT scanning units.

“We provide an annual payment of 180 pounds (about $250 U.S.) if employees move to a green electricity provider, and we are just starting to work on resources to help people reduce water usage and recycle better from home,” says business support manager Kirsty Collins.

Solar-energy company Enie, with locations in the Netherlands and South Africa, told us about its innovative work-at-home response, which relies on gamification and team-building to deliver positive environmental change on the home front.

It enrolled its employees in Do Nation, an online platform that prompts individuals to take small sustainable actions that can translate into behavior changes for healthier environmental lifestyles. The company then formed internal teams to up the ante and add a competitive spirit to the Do Nation challenge.

Enie also organized inspirational moments at the beginning of its monthly meetings where an employee speaks for 2-3 minutes on a sustainable practice they have adopted and how it could be applicable to others.

In Montreal, Quebec, communications agency Phil’s first concern was about shifting sustainability responsibilities to individuals already in the midst of stressful lifestyle changes brought about by remote work and Covid fatigue. So it took a different approach, establishing a Virtual Office Environmental Stewardship Impact Committee with the goals of creating a list of environmentally preferred vendors and practices for home offices and delivering a lunch & learn on sustainable consumption.

Companies that have long been remote-first have already learned tips of the trade that are now applicable for any company. Rebecca Colgate, human resources director for U.S.-based website and app developer CauseLabs, shared a cool tool with us—a handy carbon footprint calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each year her company tracks the carbon footprint of its remote team and uses the exercise to spark improvements as team members learn about options for wind or green energy and options for recycling, composting, and other sustainable home practices.

Companies Need to Acknowledge and Address this Opportunity

The companies featured here are just inklings of a bigger transformation ahead, one that we’ll add to the bucket list of silver linings the Covid-reset has brought to the business world.

It’s our belief that companies need to recognize this impact transference to a distributed workforce and must increasingly engage their employees to make positive environmental impacts in their home offices. It’s a great opportunity on the home front to reward remote employees around climate action and can be funded by using some portion of office energy and rent savings to help incentivize and reimburse improvements, or perhaps purchase carbon offsets. A net plus from this is that some of these positive environmental impacts might extend 24/7 in the employees’ homes and reduce energy consumption even further from pre-pandemic levels.  

This will require action from companies who might currently be looking at this as a savings to their bottom line. It will also require employees to develop a level of trust in sharing their private energy and behavior data with their employers. This is potentially a sticking point, though one we think can be transcended through personal recognition, the sense of belonging to a collective effort, and perhaps most important of all, financial incentives or other rewards. It’s a siren call for all of us in business to do what we do best – to think creatively and address problems as opportunities and effect positive change in new and innovative ways.