A mass move to working-from-home accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic might not be as beneficial to the planet as many hope, according to a new study by the University of Sussex.
The majority of studies on the subject analysed by University of Sussex academics agree that working-from-home reduced commuter travel and energy use – by as much as 80% in some cases.
But a small number of studies found that telecommuting increased energy use or had a negligible impact, since the energy savings were offset by increased travel for recreation or other purposes, together with additional energy use in the home.
The authors found that more methodologically rigorous studies were less likely to estimate energy savings – all six of the studies analysed that found negligible energy reductions or increases were judged to be methodologically good.
Teleworking is better than time splitting
Dr Andrew Hook, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sussex, said in a statement: “While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings.
“Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”
Studies indicate it would be better for workers to continue working from home for all of the working week rather than splitting time between office and home once lockdown rules are relaxed. Similarly, companies will need to encourage the majority of staff to switch to home working and to downsize office space to ensure significant energy savings.
Overall energy usage is hard to track
Even the mass migration of workers to home working might have only a small impact on overall energy usage. One study noted that even if all US information workers teleworked for four days a week, the drop in national energy consumption would be significantly less effective than a 20% improvement in car fuel efficiency.
The study also warns that technological advances could erode some of the energy savings due to the short lifetime and rapid replacement of ICTs, their increasingly complex supply chains, their dependence on rare earth elements and the development of energy-intensive processes such as cloud storage and video streaming.
The authors add that modern-day work patterns are becoming increasingly complex, diversified and personalised, making it harder to track whether teleworking is definitively contributing energy savings.
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