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The Balancing Act: Distributed Work and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Saif Sadeq, Principal, Sustainability and Building Performance

The shift towards distributed work, fueled by advancements in technology and accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has sparked a crucial conversation around the environmental implications of what seems more and more likely to be a durable change in Americans’ relationships with their workplaces. At first glance, the potential for reduced commuting emissions based on this new reality seems undeniable; however, a closer look presents a more complex picture, revealing both opportunities and challenges for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction in the distributed workforce model.

A recent study conducted by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and Noblis explores the intricate relationship of distributed work and GHG, highlighting key findings to help understand several potential tradeoffs inherent in distributed work models. Moreover, the study offers a valuable tool, the Workplace Investment Feasibility Model (WIFM), that can help organizations navigate this new landscape.

The Bigger Picture

The study confirms what many intuitively grasp: distributed work offers significant potential for lowering commuting emissions. By eliminating daily commutes for a portion of the workforce, organizations can contribute to a tangible reduction in greenhouse gasses. This benefit, however, is not absolute.

Distributed work doesn’t always translate to automatic savings in office building energy consumption, for example. The way many commercial buildings operate currently means occupancy reductions might not significantly reduce energy use. For instance, an office maintaining the same heating, cooling and lighting settings for 100 or 50 employees wouldn’t see substantial energy savings. Careful adjustments to building operations and occupancy-based controls are crucial to unlock this potential.

Another complication is the home energy trade-off. Working remotely translates to increased home energy consumption as employees power their workspaces. While not necessarily linear, this rise in energy use can counterbalance some of the gains from reduced commuting, especially for larger households or energy-inefficient homes. The GSA study underscores the importance of considering individual factors like location, housing type and home office efficiency when calculating the net impact.

Exploring a secondary level of impact, the GSA study wisely cautions against neglecting the unintended consequences of distributed work. For example, employees with some newfound work flexibility might choose to live farther from centrally located offices in urban centers. When making that choice, they may be able to consider a single-family home instead of an apartment, or a larger house than they had been able to afford. This, too, may at least partly negate the initial emissions reduction. Considering these ripple effects is essential for a comprehensive assessment.

These conclusions align with external research, including a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal that found working from home can reduce individual carbon footprints by up to 58%. However, like the GSA study, the PNAS article emphasizes the multifaceted nature of the issue and the need to consider multiple contextual factors.

The Footprint is the Key

In exploring solutions and best practices, the GSA study identifies a clear path to significant emissions reduction: downsizing the office footprint. When a substantial portion of the workforce is remote, reducing dedicated office space translates to lower operational emissions, potentially offsetting increases from home energy use and unintended consequences. This opens doors for innovative real estate management and adaptive reuse opportunities, allowing organizations to do more with less.

The GSA team’s study recommends a holistic approach when evaluating the emissions impact of distributed work. This entails considering all major emission sources within an organization’s footprint and acknowledging the potential for unintended consequences.

Enter the WIFM Tool

Based on the complex results from the study, GSA and Noblis developed an easy-to-use tool that empowers organizations to make data-driven decisions. The Workplace Investment Feasibility Model (WIFM) is an Excel-based tool that allows users to model various distributed work scenarios, estimate the emissions associated with each scenario and compare potential GHG outcomes. By leveraging WIFM, federal agencies and other organizations may gain valuable insights and make informed choices about their workplace strategy and future space requirements.

When used to model workforce configurations ahead of time, the WIFM may facilitate a wide range of decisions to help organizations:

  • Evaluate how an increase or decrease in personnel will impact future space needs
  • Compare how options for changing their telework or mobility policy may impact future space needs
  • Determine whether hybrid work options can help keep a project on budget
  • Generate and compare multiple options for building, renovating or refitting office space
  • Understand the degree of impact that changes in these parameters may have on emissions

When it comes to environmental impact, distributed work presents a complex equation with numerous interlocking variables. While the potential for GHG reduction can be significant, reaping environmental benefits is not an automatic consequence. Careful consideration of home energy use, office operations, secondary impacts of policies and real estate footprint will be crucial in determining the true outcomes of these continuing workplace shifts. Applying a holistic approach and tools like GSA’s WIFM can help organizations navigate this new landscape and make informed decisions that contribute to a more sustainable future.

To receive a copy of the WIFM tool, please send a request to