New Research on Remote Work Carbon Footprints: What HR Leaders Need to Know
Employees and job candidates around the world are increasingly interested in corporate sustainability efforts. A 2021 survey by the recruitment firm Robert Walters found that many workers would reject a job from an employer with a bad environmental reputation, including 53% in France and Chile; 52% in Switzerland; 41% percent in the US; 40% in Australia; and 34% in the UK.
That’s not necessarily news to most HR and talent acquisition leaders, but this probably is: Carbon emissions of remote workers are on the rise, and few companies are acknowledging or addressing it. Failing to engage with this issue is a blind spot that could hurt a business’s ability to attract and retain top talent—especially Gen Z and millennial candidates, who place climate change as their top concern after cost of living, according to a 2022 global survey by Deloitte. (The survey defined Gen Z respondents as born between January 1995 and December 2003, and millennials as born between January 1983 and December 1994.)
“This generation, and not just this generation, but I think a lot of people want to be tied to a mission that is bigger than them—they are really advocating for it,” Tanya Spencer, Chief Diversity Officer for GE Gas Power, told Staffing.com. “This generation, they are advocating for what they think is right.”
Spencer said it is important for a company like GE to attract talent that not only has a diversity of backgrounds but also ideas to tackle the dual challenges of providing safe, reliable energy and confronting climate change.
The Latest on Remote Worker Carbon Emissions
Commuter-related carbon emissions dropped when companies shifted to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. But remote workers’ behavior is changing. Moving out of urban centers into larger houses, heating and cooling those homes throughout the workday, and eschewing public transportation in favor of personal vehicles may offset gains associated with driving fewer commuter miles, especially for higher-paid workers.
A US-focused report from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago concluded that the higher the average wage of a profession, the more likely it is that the work involved can be done remotely. These well-paid knowledge workers tend to have larger carbon footprints due to the heating and cooling of larger homes—even if they use clean energy, according to research co-authored by Joshua Newell, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.
“We found that the level of income of a household really drives carbon emissions, and a lot of that is attributed to the size of the home,” Newell tells Staffing.com. “In fact, it can outweigh the cleanliness of the regional grid that might supply electricity for that home.” For example, heating and cooling a large home in California, which has a relatively clean energy production industry, can still result in higher emissions than heating and cooling a smaller home in a coal-powered state like West Virginia, he says.
Remote work has also driven a migration from urban centers. The further people move from city centers, the higher their home energy consumption tends to be because homes in suburban and rural areas tend to be larger, research by the Paris-based International Energy Agency has found.
Suburbanites also rely on cars much more than city dwellers do and take public transportation less often. And flexible schedules mean remote workers may take more short, local car trips during the day—to grab coffee, pick up the kids, or run an errand. One 2020 study in California, for example, found a 26% increase in car trips per day by people who worked from home. Although they drive fewer total miles because they don’t commute, their shorter local trips can exceed the carbon emissions of longer journeys because cars are less efficient when parked and started repeatedly.
The experts we spoke to acknowledged that accounting for a company’s remote work carbon footprint is a challenge. Formal sustainability reporting categorizes emissions into three scopes that cover direct and indirect emissions from physical facilities, equipment, heating, cooling, electricity usage, product distribution, and the end-of-life treatment of products. But there is no formal guidance from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) around where and how remote worker emissions should be accounted for.
Creating a Plan to Address Remote Work Carbon Footprints
A recent survey by Reuters of 20 major corporations that embrace remote work found that only half had attempted to estimate the emissions associated with remote workers, and even fewer had attempted to mitigate or offset the impact.
Even Microsoft—which has an extraordinarily robust corporate sustainability program and started estimating remote worker emissions in 2020—is still trying to get a handle on the carbon impact of its off-site workers. "Remote-work carbon calculations require relying on assumptions about home electricity [and other factors], which are not data sources we access,” Michelle Lancaster, Microsoft's Chief of Staff for Sustainability, tells Staffing.com. “But we are looking into this as we embrace hybrid work, including the potential impact of device usage, cloud computing, and video calls such as Teams.”
This knowledge gap is understandable, Newell says, because research around this topic is new and a comprehensive study has yet to be done. But hopefully that won’t take too long: HR leaders will have to answer these questions for employees and job candidates sooner rather than later.
Other leading companies that are not waiting for mandates and are tackling the issue of remote worker emissions now include Salesforce, Shopify, and Okta, all of which have started increasing their renewable energy usage to offset estimated remote work-related greenhouse gasses.
Offsets are a common corporate sustainability measure—and, although useful, it’s important that HR leaders keep in mind that offsets do not actually reduce the carbon footprint of remote workers. To do that, leaders will need to educate employees and offer resources.
Talking to Remote Employees About Their Carbon Emissions
HR leaders have an opportunity to improve employee satisfaction and talent attraction by creating educational programs and toolkits on the carbon footprint of remote workforces—in addition to pressing companies to start accounting for and offsetting their remote workers’ greenhouse gas emissions. Most employees would welcome such information, according to PwC’s 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey. Only 23% of the 52,000 workers polled said that they feel their companies help them minimize their environmental impact while at work.
Because of the personal nature of what’s involved in a carbon footprint—such as home size, family size, pets, preferences, and access to or affordability of lower-emission solutions—conversations and training must be done thoughtfully, says Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader of People & Organization at PwC. Trying to enforce climate accounting or solutions that reach into individual employees’ homes could be perceived as corporate overreach, he tells Staffing.com.
Instead, he suggests that HR departments offer workers education on their carbon footprint in the same way that they offer other upskilling programs and learning and development. With the right guardrails to avoid intrusions into the personal lives of employees, climate impact education could be similar to initiatives that tackle cybersecurity issues and personal well-being for remote workers.
For example, in 2020 Salesforce published a comprehensive guide for remote workers on how to assess and mitigate environmental and sustainability issues. The guide addresses not just energy usage, but also sustainable diets, water use, and waste management. MoreThanNow, a UK-based corporate culture and behavioral science consulting firm, offers a free sustainability guide for remote workers that takes a “think small” approach, showing how small changes in personal habits can make large improvements in overall environmental impact.
HR leaders should also consider providing employees with other voluntary resources such as environmental assessments, Sethi says. In the US, for example, the EPA provides a free basic carbon impact assessment for individuals, but workers may not know about it. The assessment accounts for location and the level of impact from electricity and heat production based on the grid mix for different regions. It then breaks down individual lifestyle habits and the climate impact of household choices. These metrics can be a basis for setting personal targets for carbon footprint reduction.
Federal and local governments in the US also offer rebates, tax breaks, and other financial incentives to individuals who make carbon-friendly upgrades to their homes.
As people managers and talent recruiters, HR leaders are in a unique position to broadcast and support corporate sustainability efforts. By enriching company environmental programs with more education and resources for remote workers, the people operations can boost the appeal of their organization in the competition for top talent.