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With Remote Work No Longer A Passing Trend, Remote Sustainability Must Follow Suit

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With no central office to run on solar power, many go-to sustainability practices have struggled to remain relevant. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

When the world went into lockdown two years ago, everything changed overnight. Schools and offices closed all over the globe, and many workplaces went remote. Experts speculated about the efficacy and sustainability of a remote workforce when we thought the practice would only go on for a few weeks.

More than 100 weeks into the experiment, it’s very clear that remote work is not going anywhere. In fact, the productivity model is likely to gain ground and increase well into 2023 and beyond, after proving to be highly successful for many businesses.

There are a number of reasons why we’re not ready to give up our home-based schedules. Of course, there’s the undeniable appeal of getting to spend the day filling spreadsheets without needing to put on pants. And there’s the flexibility for working parents or caregivers who can now spend more time taking care of their families. Many employees even report that they’re more productive when working from home without common workplace distractions

Before we all went our separate ways, sustainable companies made huge in-office efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their company and employees. Now, with no central office to run on solar power, many go-to sustainability practices have struggled to remain relevant. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Remote and hybrid working practices have changed the way we travel, the technology we use both for work and play, the amount of energy, food, and water we consume, and the waste we create. Conscientious and capable organizations must act quickly to ensure the sustainable future of remote work.

Many companies across the country and globe are still dedicated to sustainability — and are constantly on the hunt for ways to shrink the footprint left by their operations. But without a central space to enact those policies, sustainability is falling behind the surge of digitized work. How can you encourage employees to adopt sustainable practices across multiple, very different environments?

The first step to promoting remote sustainability is knowing which elements you’re up against. There are a few environmentally relevant employee behaviors that sustainable employers can focus on. And while they ultimately have very limited control over an employee’s willingness to adopt more green-focused practices, bringing awareness to them is a skip in the right direction.

Many of us assumed that work-from-home practices would lead to a dramatic drop in emissions due to the number of commutes being reduced across the country. Allowing employees to work from home reduced commuter traffic by dramatic amounts in most metropolitan areas, and April of 2020 saw an impressive — albeit temporary — drop in global CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, working from home is not a total win for the environment. Even though many employees still work from home, it doesn’t appear that global emissions are any lower now than they were prior to the pandemic. This is partially because recreational travel has increased, and partly because many remote workers are simply unaware of their daily energy use.

Energy use is one of the biggest concerns for remote work. Teleworking doesn’t quite produce the drop in energy use that most people would expect. Factors like climate, season, family size and infrastructure can weigh heavily on a single person’s (or household’s) energy footprint. So, before businesses propose remote work policies for employees, it’s important to consider various residential energy emissions and their ultimate sustainability impacts.

While technology has made the surge in remote work possible, it’s also a slight risk factor to sustainable practices. Many employees now have multiple devices, and the amount of energy expended to conduct meetings via Zoom rather than in person, as well as the sheer volume of information shared digitally, has skyrocketed.

Company leaders who are ready to take action toward promoting remote sustainability can do so in a variety of ways. Establishing a culture of sustainability within the organization is a great way to start. Providing tips and tricks for improving at-home sustainability can be helpful, especially if leaders demonstrate their commitment to those actions.

Policies that encourage adopting energy-saving practices at home are another valid option. Enacting a program that helps employees install solar panels, for example, may encourage long-term sustainability. Company leaders can also provide resources to help teleworkers adopt more mindful water usage or eating practices.

Although sustainability practices are not occurring in the physical workplace like before, that doesn’t mean employers have no weight in encouraging and helping workers lead more responsible, sustainable lifestyles. Many organizations are poised to have a significant and positive influence over employee work-from-home behavior.

What began as a makeshift solution for an unexpected crisis has become the largest societal change in America since the end of World War II. And if we approach and execute this situation the right way, the movement for remote sustainability could have a major positive impact on the environment and life as we know it.


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