Can working from home save the planet?

May 17 2007 by Gareth Kane Print This Article

I am writing this column in my home office, looking out at the trees in the river valley that runs behind my house, with the radio blaring.

This time last year I was sitting in a stuffy, badly furnished office building in a distant town, looking at a white blockwork wall and facing an hour's commute home.

You've probably guessed that I don't miss that at all.

The number of people like me working from home for part or all of the week has shown a steady increase over recent years. In the UK, it has risen from just 0.5 per cent of the workforce in 1993 to about 9 per cent now.

This trend has been helped by better (and cheaper) technology and the continuing shift of the economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge-based industries.

The obvious environmental benefit is the reduction in the carbon dioxide, local air pollutants and congestion from commuting. An analysis of published research on teleworking commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) estimated that teleworkers reduce their mileage between 48-77 per cent on teleworking days and 11 to 19 per cent overall.

Another study by Hampshire County Council backs up these findings and found evidence of a 'contracted action space' amongst those working from home. In other words, teleworkers tend to use amenities such as shops and gyms closer to their house, leading to further environmental benefits.

A friend recently challenged me on working from home, pointing out I have to heat my house all day in the winter just for me. "Is it not more efficient to heat a large number of people in one place?" he asked.

Well, no, is the answer. Office accommodation is very energy intensive, due to both heating and air-conditioning.

In his book "How To Live A Low Carbon Life", Chris Goodall calculated that the average office worker is responsible for about 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year while at work, compared to the 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide for the average UK person from all domestic heating (which includes those people who stay at home all day everyday).

So while some of the office heating requirement will shift to the home during the winter, there will still be a significant carbon saving. The Hampshire study estimated that giving staff the opportunity to work from home two days per week can reduce office space (with its attendant heating and air-conditioning) by approximately 20 per cent, leading to sizeable financial savings too.

Of course, working from home isn't perfect. Managers have to learn new skills to make sure that work is being done properly and employees need to develop the discipline to avoid the temptations of 'teleskiving'.

But occasionally domestic life does intrude on the home office, no matter how strict you are. My working idyll was recently interrupted by my partner, looking completely frazzled and with screaming baby under her arm, coming in to tell me the cat had been sick on the bed. Now that never happened in the office.


About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.