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The Office can be Anywhere, but there is #OnlyOneEarth

This Sunday marks World Environment Day. As companies continue to weigh their own approaches to the future of work, evidence increasingly points to remote-first as a way to prioritize the needs of both their people and the planet.

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Conceived by the United Nations and held every June 5 since 1974, World Environment Day is the largest global platform for environmental public outreach and is celebrated by millions of people across the world. 


But what, exactly, are we celebrating? Amid the latest spate of fires, storms, heat waves and other record-breaking, climate-related catastrophes, “celebrating” the world’s commitment to the planet may feel a little… awkward. Are we really proud of the job we’ve done as stewards of the mothership / planet earth? 


Which brings us to sustainability, a term often used to describe future societal impacts of a given policy or business practice. More recently, ESG, short for Environment Social Governance, has emerged as jargon du jour / le mot juste for business and investment community leaders when they talk about future effects of corporate governance. And make no mistake, people are talking —and investing. Investment in ESG has skyrocketed, with more than $1 trillion flooding into ESG funds in the past two years. 


What’s driving the interest? Simply put, corporate leaders are feeling the heat. Publicly owned companies are under increased pressure from their stakeholders to do their part to protect the planet. Moral and business imperatives are being commingled. The shift to the clean economy is on, and accelerating, creating dramatic shifts in how we use energy, consume food, and go from Point A to Point B, assuming we go from Point A to Point B at all. Which brings us to another concrete way we can cut carbon in our effort to build a net-positive world.  


We can support a strong remote first workplace culture. Hybrid won’t single-handedly rescue Earth from ecological disaster, of course, but the workplace has an important role to play in fighting climate change. 


Hybrid work works for Planet Earth


As if there weren’t enough reasons already to support a flexible hybrid approach to work, along comes the hypothesis, increasingly supported by data, that hybrid workplace models are more environmentally sustainable than their conventional, office-centric precursors. What do we mean by “hybrid workplace models”? Effectively, any workplace culture that supports employee choice through a mix of work environments that includes office, flex and virtual options. Hybrid advocates recognize that the framework of the pre-pandemic work era is insufficient to meet the needs of our new normal. They acknowledge what much of the workforce has known for a while now – life is short and commute times should be shorter. 


Many of the benefits of a hybrid work model are widely known. Remote work offers flexibility over where individuals work (and live). It provides a flexible work schedule. It saves time and money on commuting costs. It reduces stress levels, increases employee satisfaction, and has been shown to raise productivity levels. (“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” as Aristotle famously said.) Fundamentally, hybrid is about people; it puts employees first, empowering them to work where it works for them.


Less widely known, hybrid work can play a key role in transforming our economies and societies to make them more sustainable. 


Meaningful work, meaningful workplace 


We already know the “why” of work matters, but what about the “where”? How does remote work positively impact the planet? To begin with, fewer commuters means fewer vehicles on the road, and that means fewer emissions soiling the air we share and breathe. How big of a reduction are we talking about? According to Global Workplace Analytics, carbon emissions could be curbed by more than 51 million metric tons a year if telecommuting times were cut in half. 


An even more compelling example can be found in the troposphere. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that as work habits change and efficiencies learned / acquired during the pandemic become ingrained in our post-pandemic work lives, business-related air travel is expected to drop between 19 and 36 percent. With business travel currently responsible for approximately 20% of the total 1.04 billion metric tons of annual emissions by aviation travel, that’s roughly another 75 million metric tons!


Recent experience bears this out, unfortunately. We already know one of the few positive anomalies related to the COVID-19 lockdowns back in 2020 was the impact on air quality; there were significant declines in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels (60% and 31%, respectively). The air was cleaner, the skies were bluer, and dramatic reductions in transportation sector emissions were largely responsible.


Remote work can work on behalf of the planet in other ways. It can reduce overall consumption levels. Think office supplies, single use plastic from office takeout, even clothes. (Repeating an outfit at work isn’t a thing with remote work.) The purpose of citing these examples isn’t to punish or throw shade on businesses that depend on the pre-pandemic model for their livelihoods; it’s simply to suggest the benefit of striking a better balance that can lower our shared carbon footprint.  


There’s still work to be done


Remote-first advocates may be delighted to have a new (and green-tipped) arrow in their quiver, but they would also do well not to shoot themselves in the foot with it. For all the talk about the many positive impacts remote work can have on the environment, there are traps we should strive to avoid. 

  • Remote work doesn’t curb consumption entirely. Some would argue it simply changes it. According to Forbes, between April and June 2020, global sales of laptops rose by more than 11% and there were even bigger spikes in the sale of home office furniture. Actively looking for ways to reduce food waste, support local food sources, eliminate single use plastics and curb energy consumption remains a full-time job for all of us, regardless of where we work. 

  • Got an office retreat coming up? Even with the decline in business-related travel, meeting in person still matters. Companies can have their off sites and practice sustainability too by picking central locations for their gatherings that minimize total distance traveled, taking fuel-efficient transportation to get there, and choosing eco-friendly lodging wherever possible.

  • Another way work-related travel can be offset is by calculating the estimated carbon footprint of the trip, then supporting organizations that work to offset carbon emissions via carbon buybacks.

Ultimately, it’s always worth remembering that contributing to a sustainable future is both a  professional and personal responsibility. Nothing reverses the positive impacts of remote work like using all of that newfound workplace freedom to travel more for recreation than ever before, or failing to keep tabs on energy use on the homefront. Left unchecked, remote work can have significant negative societal impacts of its own. Balance is always best, which means a strategic / hybrid mix of office-based and remote work may offer the best path forward. 




As workers and employees continue to discuss return-to-office plans and policies, practices and processes, Mother Nature needs to have a seat at the table. Without a change to the way our planet is run, we’re on a collision course with real / existential danger. If the pandemic served as a wakeup call, “back to normal” simply won’t cut it, and one of the many practices worth revisiting is the office construct / what it means “to office”. Unorthodox no more, hybrid work models have been shown to increase worker satisfaction and decrease employee turnover. They’re good for motivation, morale, and the bottom line. It just so happens that the future of the planet can benefit from hybrid work, too.


Let’s not miss the moment. As we celebrate the forty-eighth anniversary of World Environment Day, honest talk about corporate responsibility needs to include a discussion about the role of the office. Now more than ever, no single office environment can be all things to all people, and making remote work a component of your organization’s workplace blueprint for the future is a way to imbue “ESG” with real meaning. If your company’s mission is “ESG, ASAP”, if you want to reduce carbon emissions and help create real systemic change the planet needs, then give some thought to where your employees hang their hats during “office hours.” Support true workplace choice, because ignoring climate concerns isn’t an option.


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