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It's complicated: Sustainability impacts of working from home

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DENVER — March 2020 marked the first stay-at-home order for Colorado. Since that time, the number of people working from home across the nation and the state has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic. This has pushed sustainability leaders to look at how telecommuting could decrease overall emissions.

Jerry Tinianow served as Denver’s first Chief Sustainability Officer from 2012 to 2019, and now runs his own sustainability business. Tinianow began looking into this concept in the spring of 2020. Talking with local and global experts, he began to unveil some of the sustainability mysteries of working from home.

“It has really presented us with the opportunity to see what clean air can look like,” said Allison Redmon, program director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) Way To Go transportation mobility program.

Colorado Voices

Telecommuting, A Win for Sustainability?


Telecommuting has grown since the pandemic began. Is it a sustainability win?

DRCOG, which covers a handful of Front Range counties, and Way To Go looked into the rapid shift from commuting to telework — and their findings were dramatic. The number of telecommuters surveyed in the region increased by 230% from March to April in 2020.

DRCOG and Way To Go also wanted to know if employees and employers actually enjoyed telecommuting. They found that over 80% of teleworkers were at least mostly satisfied with working remotely. Almost 40% of workers were “very likely” to continue working remotely at least one day per week.

Many workers found that their work-life balance was easier to maintain and that they were more efficient at home. However, others felt less connected to their colleagues and did not feel the same benefits.

While DRCOG discovered the desire for telework — and long-term telework — in the spring of 2020, there was little data on how telework impacts environmental sustainability.

With fewer cars on the road, there would certainly be less car emissions. And with fewer workers in offices, doesn’t that mean building energy use would decrease? Liam O’Brien of Carleton University said, “No, it does not.”

O’Brien has been studying the pandemic’s impact on electricity use in Ottawa, Canada. In his research, O’Brien found that home energy use increased about 25% in the springtime and 30% in the summer. Further, office buildings not in use are still energy vampires; plugged in computers and printers, air conditioning and heating, and lights continue to drain energy despite the absence of workers. O’Brien said that overall, telework does decrease energy use but just not as much as many people think.

So, how environmentally beneficial telework is remains a complex question—it can even depend on where energy is sourced from. Is it from wind or coal?

These environmental queries aren’t the only reason for pause. There are a number of social issues with telecommuting as well.

“The people who are being mostly impacted right now by COVID-19 are Black and brown communities. And they are also the people who are most likely to be working outside of the home right now.” — Tamika Matthews, Violence Free Colorado

Only certain jobs allow workers to work from home. This is seen in positional power; CEOs may not need to go into work, but grocery store stockers do. However, this inequity is even more so seen inour essential workers during the pandemic.

“The people who are being mostly impacted right now by COVID-19 are Black and brown communities. And they are also the people who are most likely to be working outside of the home right now,” said Tamika Matthews of Violence Free Colorado.

This structural inequality has led to a disproportionate number of deaths in these communities.

Further, some workers may not want to work from home. Matthews recognized that the pandemic is a “pressure cooker kind of situation” for domestic violence. With increased economic instability and isolation, Matthews suggested that a rise in domestic violence would not be surprising.

Even without the added pressure of the pandemic, though, Matthews insisted that flexibility is essential to combat potential inequities.

How cities and communities can best approach telecommuting, then, is a difficult question. But the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission began tackling this task in March by developing a telework guide — one of the first of its kind.

Lexi Petrella, who led development of the guide, said that for telework to be successful, companies must have good communication, a defined umbrella policy, and an agreement between employer and employee.

“One type of telework pattern doesn’t work for one company and it may not work for every employee in the company,” Petrella said. Many factors can determine this, such as socio-economic status, job type, and access to technology. So, while Petrella hopes other regions might use the guide, she acknowledges the document is unfinished.

Fortunately, many sustainability leaders recognize that work remains to be done.

“It’s so important to think beyond the immediate and obvious impacts,” said O’Brien.

Matthews requests that employers give workers “the flexibility and freedom to find ways to thrive and be successful and make sure that that extends not just during this pandemic but well beyond it.”

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