HomeRemote WorkHow forcing office returns harms the environment

How forcing office returns harms the environment

The onset of COVID-19 in 2020 catalyzed a dramatic shift in the way we work, with many trading their office cubicles for home offices. This shift brought significant environmental benefits, highlighting the impact of our daily commutes on global carbon emissions. However, as office returns become more common, it is crucial to recognize how this transition harms the environment. The drastic reduction in commuting during the pandemic offered a glimpse of the potential for lasting environmental improvements, underscoring the need to reconsider the push to return to traditional office settings.

A temporary environmental reprieve

Travel decreased during the 2020 lockdowns, which contributed significantly to a 7% decrease in global carbon emissions. Many were able to appreciate the natural world because of the calm streets that were free of the typical rush hour traffic. The regular din of city life was replaced with the sound of birdsong, suggesting a world that would be more peaceful and unpolluted if there was less commuting.

The rise of remote and hybrid work

Even with the start of operations in 2021, the conventional office setting has not entirely recovered. Currently, 13% of Americans work remotely full-time, while 28% of Americans have hybrid schedules. This change in work habits could have a significant effect on carbon emissions. A 10% rise in remote work may save carbon emissions by 192 million metric tons annually, according to a study published in Nature Cities. The transportation industry is the most polluting in the nation; with this reduction, emissions from this sector would be reduced by 10%.

The potential of remote work

Research supports the environmental benefits of remote work. A study published in PNAS found that switching to remote work could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 54%, even when accounting for non-commute travel and residential energy use. Working from home two to four days a week could cut emissions by 11% to 29% compared to full-time office work. However, these benefits diminish if remote work is limited to just one day a week, reducing emissions by only 2%.

Corporate reluctance to embrace remote work

Despite these benefits, many companies are pushing employees back into the office. Big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Meta have mandated in-office work several days a week, with consequences for non-compliance. Even Zoom, synonymous with remote work, requires employees living within 50 miles of the office to commute two days a week.

Commuting and carbon emissions

The reliance on personal vehicles for commuting exacerbates the environmental impact. A recent Bospar poll found that two-thirds of Americans drive to work, predominantly in gas-powered cars. While electric vehicle purchases are increasing, they still represent only about 1% of cars on the road. The energy consumption of maintaining physical office spaces further compounds the environmental cost, as these buildings require significant heating and cooling.

The hypocrisy of green claims

There is a growing perception of hypocrisy among companies that claim to be environmentally conscious while enforcing in-office work. A survey by Bospar revealed that many millennials and Gen Zers view it as hypocritical for companies to observe Earth Day while requiring employees to commute. Examples include Disney, which promoted environmental efforts while increasing in-office work requirements, and Nike, which touted sustainable products while its CEO criticized remote work.

The economic impact of remote work

While remote work presents clear environmental benefits, it also poses challenges. Research indicates that a 10% shift to remote work could lead to a $3.7 billion annual loss for U.S. transit systems, a 27% drop in fare revenue. Additionally, there is concern that remote work might encourage urban sprawl, with employees moving to suburbs where carbon footprints are generally higher.

A generational shift in work culture

The resistance to remote work is often seen as a desire among corporate leaders to return to pre-pandemic norms. However, as this generation of leaders retires, there is hope that newer generations, who have experienced the benefits of remote work, will drive more environmentally friendly workplace policies.


The environmental case for remote work is compelling. Cutting back on commuting can help reduce carbon emissions dramatically and support international efforts to tackle climate change. A simple fix for a major global problem could be for firms to incorporate remote work into their strategies as they negotiate the future of work. Overcoming conventional corporate mindsets and realizing the long-term advantages of flexible work arrangements for the environment and the people are the challenges.