Future of work: 5 carbon footprint questions every business can address

Remote work and video meetings are the new normal. Is this better for the planet?

“There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.”

We all have a role to play towards combating climate change. As the climate agenda gains swift momentum, companies are stepping up to understand how “business as usual” impacts the planet.

In 2020, the way we work changed. Businesses worldwide adopted work-from-home cultures overnight and remote work became the wave of the future. The US alone saw a 90% increase in remote work since the pandemic, and will reach an estimated 36 million remote workers by 2025.

As businesses everywhere question how this climate of change (see what we did there…) will reshape the future of work, what does it mean for coming to terms with our carbon footprint?

Well, the short answer is: it’s complicated.

We’re no experts on carbon emissions. However, as an ethically ambitious technology company, we strive to build a business as a force for a better world. That’s why, this month's Whereby Forest project, we're planting one million trees for video meetings to give back to nature.

In this longer read, we outline 5 existential questions the business world is facing and some practical approaches towards environmentally-conscious answers.

1. WFH workforce: does zero commuting mean less emissions?

One of the biggest benefits of remote work is the lack of a commute. Environmentally speaking, it seems intuitive to assume this is greener. Less cars, trains, and busses means less emissions… right?

Research suggests it’s not that simple. Avoiding commuting by working from home saves energy, but the benefits may be fewer than expected. There are just too many factors. For example, how are people commuting and how far? If people aren’t travelling to work, are they travelling elsewhere instead?

As the BBC reports, work-from-home sustainability is layered especially as energy consumption patterns around the world are incredibly varied. For instance, in Norway, more than 40% of vehicles sold in 2019 were electric, incentivised by the government. The impact of commutes in Nordic countries is far lower than other parts of the world that still rely heavily on petrol, such as the UK and US.

If your business is looking to save energy by cutting down commutes, the World Economic Forum suggests it’s better to fully commit. Home-working needs to be widespread enough to downsize office space and maximize energy savings.

Whereby operates as a 100% remote, globally distributed team without an office. We use our own product to meet and collaborate. At the moment, our fast-growing team largely works from their living rooms and home offices.

When the world opens up, we envision the future might involve green energy-powered home offices, local co-working hubs within cycling distance, and hybrid office spaces to drop into via electric carpools and public transport – as well the ability to participate in any meeting via video from anywhere.

2. Future workspaces: does it make sense to have an office anymore?

Are open plan offices and water cooler chats a thing of the past? As the New Yorker reports, businesses are facing an unprecedented opportunity to rethink presence and proximity in workspace planning. The rise of video conferencing and cloud-based enterprise tools empower every business to digitize their workflow.

As the world rethinks what the physical workspace is for, it’s also an opportunity to rethink how to do it sustainably.

The good news is it’s possible to calculate and make small changes that lead to effective reductions. For example, switching off lights, choosing a green energy provider, improving insulation, or going paperless are valid steps to take.

Ditching the office doesn’t automatically reduce a business’ carbon emissions, either. There are other factors to consider, such as displacing energy consumption to homes, or even shipping home office supplies to employees.

3. Face-to-face vs. online: have video meetings killed the business travel budget?

It’s all well and good improving office insulation and cycling to work, but it won’t matter if you’re not addressing the elephant in the room: air travel is by far one of the highest contributors to carbon emissions. As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth, every time you fly London to New York and back, one seat is equivalent to melting three square meters of arctic ice. One seat on one cross country US flight is equal to eight months of driving.

Whether attending conferences, doing field work research, or meeting clients for coffees in far flung places, the way the business world travelled pre-pandemic was highly unsustainable.

Now, meetings and events have gone virtual. The businesses with the world’s biggest travel budgets have realized that a video meeting can be a productive alternative to hopping on a cross-continental flight.

Digital technology shouldn’t completely replace in-person connections. But the pandemic has proven that video conferencing can be a cost-effective alternative – not only for the company budget, but especially for the planet.

4. Bandwidth: how can we have better video meetings, not more?

Internet usage – including video meetings – is also a significant contributor towards carbon emissions.

While commutes and air travel plummeted last year, internet traffic climbed. A number of countries reported over 20% increase in internet traffic and, as a recent study found, “should this trend continue in 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest of about 71,600 square miles – twice the land area of Indiana – to sequester the emitted carbon.”

Let’s zoom out for a minute. Having better meetings shouldn’t mean having more video meetings. It’s about making meetings more meaningful. We find that video meetings work best when combined with other asynchronous communication tools such as Slack, Notion, and Loom. We also make a habit of recording and sharing meetings like town halls, onboarding sessions, and training material to avoid repetition.

5. To offset or not to offset: how can businesses approach carbon neutral?

From Microsoft to Disney, committing to “net zero” as a future-facing business strategy is becoming mainstream.

Net zero, or carbon neutral, means to remove equal amounts of greenhouse gases that are put into the atmosphere. Carbon offsetting means to fund greenhouse gas reducing projects to balance emissions that can’t be eliminated. We should be careful not to use either terms too liberally.

The best way for businesses to address their carbon emissions is through local operations. Ethically speaking, pollutant activity has a cost on society at large. As part of their carbon reduction strategies, businesses can offset by financing reforestation, renewable energies, and other necessary climate solutions to balance their environmental costs.

Plenty of third parties exist to help navigate this complexity. This month, we’re partnering with Brynk, a London-based startup, that helps individuals and businesses make contributions towards planting mangrove trees as a way of storing CO2, restoring ecosystems, and supporting vulnerable communities.

TL;DR: there’s a lot up in the air

As a business, your carbon footprint is something to explore from many angles. From the number of employees, to the office energy bill, to data center usage, any business can make smart decisions to reduce their carbon emissions. A full commitment to remote work could be part of the solution. As businesses consider the future of work, one thing seems certain: video meetings are here to stay.

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