In looking at ways to reduce our carbon emissions, commuting often emerges as a major obstacle. It’s a big slice of my own carbon footprint, even though I generally travel in to London just twice a week. So working from home is often suggested as a way of reducing travel distance and cutting emissions.
Tele-commuting has been possible since the late 1940s, when ordinary people began to get telephones installed for the first time. As the Carbon Trust note in their report on the subject, it gained popularity during the oil crises of the 1970s, and then came of age with the internet. It’s not possible for every job of course, but today 4 million of Britain’s 30 million workforce usually work from home.
There are many advantages.
- For the employee, it saves the time and expense of commuting. Working two days a week from home saves an average of £450 and 50 hours. It can be a big factor in work-life balance and general life satisfaction.
- The employer can save on office costs and energy. In a large company, those costs can stack up. BT estimated in 2007 that it saved €725 million a year in office space.
- Depending on the job, productivity often increases. Studies show that many home workers spend at least part of the time savings on work, so you often get more hours out of your staff. They also take fewer days off sick.
- Society at large benefits from fewer people on the roads and trains during rush hour.
- The environment benefits from lower carbon emissions – 390kg per person in the aforementioned two-day a week example.
Or at least that’s the theory. As usual, not all home-working is created equal, from an environmental point of view. Whether the net ecological impact is actually lower depends on a few things:
- Working from home is greener in the summer. In winter, we might save the emissions from commuting, but then wipe out the savings by heating the house all day while we work from home. Best to just heat the one room you’re working in.
- Who else in at home? If the house is usually occupied during the day, then it would be heated anyway and having one more person at home working makes more efficient use of that energy.
- How we normally travel matters. If you normally cycle to work or take public transport, then there are no carbon savings and the chances are that working from home would be worse for the environment overall.
- Another factor is where we choose to live. An IET report into rebound effects suggests that some people may choose to live further away if they don’t have to commute every day. But then of course the longer commute wipes out the carbon savings on the days when they do go into the office.
One of the best compromises is shared workspace within walking distance, which saves the travel emissions while maintaining the benefits of shared energy use. (For those who appreciate the social aspects of an office environment, that also gets over the isolation of working from home.) I do this myself, renting a desk at a local creative business hub that’s ten minutes’ walk from my home. I occasionally work out of the library too, and tend to change locations to suit what I’m working on.
With those caveats in mind, there’s room for more home working in our economy. The Carbon Trust estimate that around 40% of jobs could be done from home, but just two out of five businesses have developed home working as an option for staff. Not all employees will want to – where it is offered, a third to half don’t usually take it up. But it’s clear that there is more potential here. Just remember not to heat your whole house when it’s cold.