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How Remote Work Can Truly Enable Sustainability in the Future

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Over the decades, predictions made in the ground-breaking book Limits to Growth have come true. As a whole, humanity has rapidly approached, and in some cases even exceeded, the limits of what our environment can sustain.

The adverse effects have manifested globally, in climate change and the increasing scarcity of non-renewable resources. And what’s most disappointing about this predicament is that some experts had already forecast it in 1972.

Not enough people heeded the call then, but more of us are willing to listen now. We can all make a difference by truly practicing sustainability in our lives. And the recent shift towards remote work can play a vital role in that potentially environment-saving intervention.

Potential benefits for sustainable living

How does remote work help people live more sustainably?

Anyone who has transitioned from a traditional office to working from home will have noticed and appreciated the cost savings. Obviously, they no longer need to engage in the ritual of commuting daily. That alone will lower their expenses.

But remote work also enables you to virtually eliminate wardrobe spending. You also get to cook your own meals, creating healthier diets and lower medical expenses.

On the business end, shutting down the office premises significantly cuts down overhead costs. And with most tasks being shifted to the virtual realm, businesses have practically been forced to go paperless out of necessity.

All of those areas for cost savings are not just beneficial to workers and employers. They are also opportunities to enable sustainability. They can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions and energy consumption.

The challenges of net sustainability

However, there are several conditional factors in play. These must come together successfully before such potential benefits can be realized.

The net diaspora of workers from offices to homes reduces energy consumption in commercial locations. But it results in a similar increase in consumption at our residences. The new office-based worker must be using energy-efficient appliances and observe energy-saving practices at home.

Without colleagues or supervisors to reinforce these behaviors, individual employees can be less efficient energy consumers. In a centralized office, upgrading systems like the HVAC or lighting can mean efficient consumption for everyone. Dispersed into their homes, individuals with inefficient practices can largely offset the cost reduction.

working from home

Similar mechanics tend to muddle the mixture when it comes to food and health. In theory, we buy fresh produce and cook healthy meals. But in practice, many people can order food or stop by their go-to place for takeout.

It also raises the question of how produce is sourced. Some people might grow their own food or rely on local farmers with efficient bale feeders and short-distance transportation. But most home shoppers will still drive to the supermarket or have groceries delivered to their doorstep.

In an ideal scenario for sustainability, the remote worker never has to leave home except on rare occasions. When they do, it’s to go somewhere nearby, which can be reached by walking or biking. Their homes are net-zero, or close to it. They grow vegetables in the garden or at a community farm.

Making that scenario a reality requires a lot of effort. And thus far, research attempting to assess the impact of remote work on overall sustainability has shown mixed results.

Empowering each individual

The evidence on remote work as a sustainability enabler might be inconclusive for now. After all, we have only had a few months to adapt in the wake of the pandemic. But its true promise lies in empowering the individual to make a greater difference.

Over the years, individuals have been the ones pushing for business practices to be reformed. We find it easier to adjust our behaviors to save the environment. Yet, we have never had the same impact compared to organizations that operate on a large scale.

Remote work gives us greater autonomy and greater control over our lifestyles. By shifting consumption patterns out of corporate decision-makers’ hands, it empowers workers to optimize their practices. We don’t have to deal with companies’ red tape in pushing for changes to sustainable operations.

No one doubts that remote work is here to stay. Some employees miss the face-to-face interactions, and many offices might move towards a hybrid environment in the future. But as long as our lives’ balance shifts toward our homes, our conscientious choices can make a greater difference towards saving the environment.

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