Find out about The Open University's Environment courses.
Digital carbon footprints and the remote workforce
Today many companies find themselves at the intersection of two global workforce megatrends – distributed, remote workforces and the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation.
These two trends have disrupted the notion of the workplace and the employer’s sphere of workforce responsibility, leaving many employers grappling with how to provide adequate support and inclusion for both remote, hybrid and office-based workers.
As the pandemic peak passed, there was a gradual acceptance that employer’s care of duty would extend beyond the office walls indefinitely. Now, most companies are aware that employee pastoral care, health, safety and growth opportunities are the employer’s responsibility, no matter where their staff are located.
We now find ourselves at another juxtaposition of two forces – climate change, NetZero strategies, and the global energy crisis. The ramifications of these are still unfolding, however there is an important realisation that is yet to become widespread amongst the business community, and that is the central point of this article – the carbon emissions of remote workers.
Scopes of responsibility
As businesses implement sustainability, climate and NetZero strategies they become acutely aware of the responsibilities beholden upon them across three specific climate-focused scopes.
These scopes of responsibility have been defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol to describe the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a company’s activities. They encapsulate emissions generated directly or indirectly by the business, both in their upstream and downstream activities.
The scopes are simply known as Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3.
- Scope 1 relates to emissions generated directly by the organisation, such as those from vehicles, buildings, manufacturing processes or leaks from equipment.
- Scope 2 is broader, including indirect emissions generated by purchased energies, such as electricity, steam and heat. This scope also includes the emissions generated by the electricity consumed by end users.
- Scope 3 is where it gets tricky and where a great deal of investment is going today. Scope 3 covers all other emissions, including the energy used by the utilities in the transmission and delivery of the energy, transportation (suppliers and customers), waste, investments, capital goods, franchises and employee commuting.
Carbon emissions of remote workers
Technically, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol scopes are a little loose when it comes to accounting for and reporting on the energy and associated carbon emissions of remote workers.
Within Scope 3 there is a specific category for employee commuting as well as energy, IT equipment purchased and used within the office. The definition of Scope 3 Category 7 Employee Commuting implies accounting for ‘teleworkers’ is optional.
In today’s world that seems somewhat underplayed, especially when Scope 2 requires companies to consider the energy used by their customers in using their products or services.
While there are calls for the scope guidance to be updated, many companies are already opting for a more integrous forward-thinking approach, accounting for work-from-home (WFH) remote energy consumption alongside associated reductions in office energy requirements.
The rapidly growing B-Corp certification is stricter in this respect, requiring companies to declare their remote worker energy consumption. This can be rather complicated from both technical and moral perspectives.
In a video interview with green web design and sustainable business pioneer, Tom Greenwood shares the story of how he struggled to motivate staff to provide their energy requirements as part of the B-Corp certification process.
The outcome was more positive than he had anticipated, having a multiplier knock-on effect as entire households, not just individual employees, moved to renewable energy sources.
Regardless of how or when the GHG Scopes incorporate emissions associated with remote working, forward thinking, climate-aware businesses should be working towards calculating their remote workers’ digital carbon footprints as part of a larger project to understand the entire remote carbon footprint of employees.
Beyond the obvious carbon-accountability reasons for this, employers have an opportunity to better support their staff’s remote-working costs during the ongoing energy crisis while also helping proactively address a nascent mental health topic – eco-anxiety.
Remote workers and eco-anxiety
Admittedly, it might seem a stretch to include eco-anxiety in an article about remote digital carbon footprints, however, this is one area of carbon accounting that can have an unexpected positive social impact. It is also an excellent example of how our global challenges are often inextricably linked.
Grist reported that the trends for climate anxiety searches rose by more than 565% between 2020 and 2021 compared to the 16 years before. In May 2022, the Smithsonian Magazine wrote about a large-scale study into the topic, in which climate anxiety is identified as an area of escalating concern, especially in younger generations.
The interview identified that a significant part of the solution is to allow people to come together, share their concerns and to feel empowered to make changes as part of a solution bigger than themselves.
This is where engaging with employees on the topic of digital carbon footprints can find a three-way symbiosis between companies, workers and the planet.
For the company, working with remote workers gives them important data and insights to better manage and report on their carbon impact, which links with their broader sustainability strategy.
From the employee perspective, if implemented carefully, this can come across less as invasive activity tracking and monitoring, but rather a joined-up approach to help reduce their, and their employer’s collective environmental impact.
Further, some of the actions that employees can take to reduce their digital carbon footprints are relatively easy and seemingly minor, yet at company-wide scale, still impactful. This provides individuals the opportunity to get involved in something bigger, but with relatively small steps.
The ability to take small steps as part of a larger campaign is crucial in helping individuals overcome climate hesitation and can be the catalyst for further personal climate actions.
Clearly the steps above benefit the company and individual in several ways, all of which could lead to a collectively meaningful reduced environmental impact.
Accounting for remote worker digital carbon footprints
When calculating the remote worker’s contribution to the company’s carbon footprint, employers should look to gather the following types of information:
- the number of hours worked
- the type of equipment used and the duration of use
- the number of hours on video calls
- how much energy was used in lighting and heating that wouldn’t have been used if the employee was in the office
- how much of the energy came from renewable sources
Of course, when it comes to digital carbon footprints, we’re less concerned about the incremental lighting and heating consumption, but still very much interested in how much energy is from renewable providers.
From a technology utilisation point of view, workplace tools allow for centralised reporting on time used. Beyond this, as Tom Greenwood mentioned in the interview above, staff can be incentivised to provide regular updates which can be anonymised and aggregated to create a holistic snapshot.
It should be noted though, that an employer’s efforts to understand their worker’s activities remotely, especially at home, must be undertaken with caution. Information gathering needs to be conducted with care and consent, as to avoid privacy fears over the reach of an employer into the private space of an employee.
Reducing remote digital carbon footprints
As covered in more detail in the previous articles on procurement, on prem IT and cloud, the biggest impact in reducing our digital carbon footprints comes from careful responsible procurement practices, increasing lifetime use of IT equipment and reducing the need and demand for new tech.
Beyond that, we must be very mindful about the energy we consume, and therefore the carbon we emit when using our technologies. Through becoming more aware of what we use, and how small changes in behaviour can have collectively large impacts, we can identify how to tackle wasted energy.
Reducing energy waste can help us collectively reduce significant amounts of needless carbon emissions. Best of all, some of the areas we can make an immediate carbon impact can be achieved with only a minor impact on our working comfort or productivity.
In general, look to challenge ingrained digital and technology habits that inadvertently waste energy. Some ideas for thought are:
- Don’t leave technology items on standby for long periods of time. Even when in ‘sleep’ mode, computers, printers, WIFI access points, chargers, smart devices, all consume small amounts of energy, that, over time, on a day-by-day, month-by-month basis can all add up.
- Turn down things like printer quality, monitor brightness and WIFI transmit power from factory defaults to comfortable lower levels.
- Stream less video by either switching from HD to SD, or turning video off entirely, especially if you take part in lots of video calls.
With greater proportions of the workforce conducting their duties remote from decentralised offices, an organisation’s carbon footprint is more distributed than ever before.
Organisations must act to understand the collective carbon footprints of their remote workers and provide mechanisms for their staff to both safely contribute data as well as take part in and be rewarded through collective carbon saving initiatives.
The impact of robust, inclusive and safe remote-worker carbon footprinting goes beyond developing better carbon accounting and reporting, potentially also helping mitigate a looming mental health crisis.
More on digital carbon footprints
This resource is part of the Supporting hybrid working and digital transformation collection, made possible by the Higher Educational Funding Council for Wales.