How businesses can help staff reduce both their costs and carbon emissions 

Businesses in Europe and the US are becoming much more aware of their impact on the climate and increasingly conscientious about reporting their emissions. Direct and indirect carbon emission (Scope 1 & 2) reporting is now mandatory in many countries[i] and progress is being made to include supply chain emissions (Scope 3) into corporate disclosures.

Yet the emissions generated by employees working from home have been largely overlooked. This is in spite of the fact they have become increasingly significant over the last two years due to the pandemic.

Carbon emissions from commuting declined as the pandemic forced people to commit to home working rather than coming into the office. This should in theory have lowered overall net energy use.

But these savings have been offset by an increase in the amount of energy used at home. In order to work remotely we need to heat and light our homes, plug in our devices and cook our food. These utilities would all previously have been provided in the office.

Domestic arrangements vary significantly, but in general terms a person living alone would have a higher increase in domestic energy use when they choose to work from home than someone living in a larger house that is already in use most of the day.

The choices businesses and individuals make about where and when they work can have a noticeable effect on their emissions and on their costs. However, these choices are rarely discussed when sharing ideas about new ways of working.

In parallel to corporate emissions reporting, some employees calculate their personal carbon footprints and take steps to reduce or offset these emissions. But it is rare for businesses and their employees to come together and assess the data fully. This needs to change.

Many individuals care deeply about cutting their emissions and prefer to work for a business that is taking active steps to become carbon neutral or net zero. People are also worried about the cost of energy.

There should be an opportunity for employers to reflect these concerns and extend the scope of measurement and support into the home to help reduce both energy wastage and carbon emissions.

At Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) we have experimented with including domestic emissions as part of our own business reporting. All staff were asked to calculate their footprint as part of a completely confidential exercise.

We also asked people what they were most proud of having changed in the last year and how they planned to cut their emissions further in 2022.

The response from the AWA team was incredibly positive and it was agreed we should repeat the process every year. Following a lively discussion, we set up a space to share our best practices and help each other to further reduce our carbon footprint. Food, office equipment, travel, recycling and energy sources were all covered.

This exercise showed a much higher appetite for sustainability than was expected. People take their personal emissions more seriously than those of their employer largely because they have control over them. This will become even more important as fuel costs rise.

Changing the way we work affects personal and business emissions and harnessing the individual desire for sustainability allows for a more integrated approach. For a long time now, businesses have offered low carbon travel incentives such as cycling to work or carpooling. They have also taken care to make sure home offices are ergonomically and technically fit for purpose.

There is an opportunity to expand these benefits to give employees more control over their emissions. This could be achieved by supplying information and advice to encourage workers to switch to clean energy deals, to insulate their homes and reduce their energy usage.

Moreover, working from home reduces the amount of time we spend commuting, which represents another major source of carbon emissions. It has long been known that commuting is an inefficient use of time and energy and that people strongly dislike it, but it is unusual for businesses to include in their carbon reports the emissions created during their employees’ commute.

As we have seen during the pandemic, reducing the number of commuter journeys cuts traffic emissions substantially (even though they are now rising again) and improves staff satisfaction. Many workers will never return to commuting into the office five days a week. This is something that should be celebrated.

AWA has shown the adoption of new ways of working could reduce emissions for knowledge-based businesses by around 25%. In addition to commuting, this includes business travel reductions as well as office space and energy savings.

Businesses can do a lot to help their staff lower their carbon emissions while at the same time allowing them to work more flexibly. It would be a shame if people were forced back into the office against their will because it had become too expensive to work from home.

Rather than paying people more to address rising energy costs, it would be better to help them make their homes more energy efficient.

As the importance of working from home increases, businesses should be taking a broader view of their environmental impact in such a way that engages employees and increases the scope of savings.

Making this discussion explicit is good for morale, good for business and good for the environment.