Remote working: a not-so-good ecological idea?

Remote working: a not-so-good ecological idea?

By: Alexandre Neviaski, Research Leader for the Sociology of Law

Translated by: Noemi Amelynck, Head of Research

While the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly harmed humanity on many levels, like any disaster, it has also been a catalyst for many revolutions. The lockdowns introduced in most countries have forced companies to rethink their working policies. After equipping the majority of their employees, they have become accustomed to online meetings, online training and intensive email exchanges.[1] Although the main objective of this practice was to comply with the various measures related to lockdown, it continued even when going to the office became legal again. This choice was motivated equally by economic reasons and for the well-being of employees. Remote working has enabled employers to save on many logistical costs – which, today, justifies the increased use of flex-office policies implemented by many companies. From the employee point of view, remote working has allowed them to work from anywhere and has also offered them fewer tiring days.

The ecological aspect, therefore, appears quite far from all these social considerations. However, one of the main effects of remote work has been the elimination all travel. In France, where more than 70% of people go to work by car, limiting these daily journeys has certainly reduced the individual carbon footprint of a large part of the population.[2] Adding on is the fact that remote work has reduced the energy consumption for both heating and lighting for companies.

According to calculations made by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), these changes in working conditions have saved 271kg of the carbon equivalent annually per working day.[3] These favourable figures prompted the director of Forum Vie Mobile (the think tank for mobility supported by the SNCF), Sylvie Landriève, to assert that “remote working can become a positive solution for the environment because it reduces travel for going to work, one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions.”[4] So, if we stop at this primary analysis, it is tempting to side with Sylvie Landriève. However, remote work has a dark side that can make it much more destructive than the greenhouse gas emissions of cars, in an ecological sense. In reality, the introduction of remote working has created a two-headed monster.

First of all, by allowing people to work at least three days out of five from home, remote working has pushed these same people to move even further away from city centres in order to take advantage of larger, greener and less expensive spaces. The CO2 emissions that are saved during the three days of the week that are spent working from home is, therefore, offset by the increase in distance between home and work. In addition, these migrations to peri-urban areas have strongly influenced the number of extra-professional journeys. Now, former city dwellers have increased the use of their cars to go shopping or to take their children to school. Remote working is, therefore, not necessarily synonymous with reducing car use.

The other threat posed by remote working lies in its increased use of digital technology. As mentioned previously, this “professional revolution” has led to an exponential increase in online meetings (some institutions, such as ADEME, have gone so far as to suggest a twenty-fold increase in the number of online meetings), an intensification of e-mails (whose carbon weight constitutes four grams of CO2), and finally a digital over-equipment of employees. This over-equipment will lead to the creation of new industrial waste, such as computer mice or cables. Without advocating for a decrease, it is possible to questions this overproduction which, by definition, does not seem necessary.

This raises the question that Victor Frankenstein asked himself at the time of the completion of his modern Prometheus: has an uncontrollable monster been created?

Like Kierkegaard, we had to advocate despair to see the opposite side of the argument.[5] The objective of this article is not to encourage people to give up remote working. On the contrary, it is certain that this practice has many advantages, especially for employees. The purpose of this approach is to demonstrate that it is not necessarily ecological. If it can greatly limit greenhouse gas emissions, this requires collective awareness of its use.

[1] Soufyane FRIMOUSSE et Jean-Marie PERETTI, « Les changements organisationnels induits par la crise de la Covid-19 », Question(s) de management, vol. 29, no. 3, 2020, pp. 105-149.

[2] INSEE, Sept salariés sur dix vont travailler en voiture, présenté par Armelle Bolusset, n°143, 13/02/2019.

[3] Greenworking et ADEME, Etude sur la caractérisation des effets rebond induits par le télétravail, présenté par Jérémie Almosni et Sandrine Carballes, 09/2020.

[4] Alix COUTURES, « Le télétravail est-il vraiment bon pour l’environnement? », Challenges, 03/11/2021.

[5] Soren KIERKEGAARD, Le Traité du désespoir, Folio, 1988, p. 34.

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