There are many ways for companies to encourage sustainability within their organization and community, yet one aspect that is often forgotten is the use of remote or digital work. Prior to the global COVID pandemic in 2020, working from home was not seen as a productive alternative to an office environment. A growing movement of ‘digital nomads’ or entirely remote workers was starting to carve itself a niche within the workforce – but overall, the concept of working individually in a non-work sanctioned environment was not usually tolerated [1, 2].
“Pre-pandemic, there […] was a negative stigma associated with volunteering to work from home,” explains Nicholas Bloom, an Economics professor at Stanford University , “The pandemic obviously changed all of this because everyone was doing it. Now this negative stigma has disappeared and it’s become normalized.” Several pre-pandemic studies highlighted that persons working from home were more efficient and productive overall, and following the pandemic when more fully remote and hybrid positions are available, those trends have continued .
Enabling workers to work digitally has several positive outcomes outside of the productivity increase. Remote workers and digital nomads explain that online work enables them to better juggle their work-life balance, it makes them happier and provides them with more flexibility and time to engage in other activities . In general, companies offering remote or hybrid work are more attractive for employees due to the improved flexibility. Improved mental health aside, shifting to digital operations has a range of benefits from an environmental perspective for both employee and employer.
One of the obvious changes is the reduction of commute times. Decreasing the amount of vehicles on the road has a net positive impact on the environment, and a 2021 study shows that hybrid workers in the United Kingdom could reduce the amount of noxious emissions by up to 10% solely by working from home . This same study found that a Zoom call emitted just 0.6% of the carbon emissions generated on a typical commute, and that working from home could reduce personal carbon footprints by up to 80% .
These numbers vary from person to person, but highlight the impact that digital work can have.However, as noted by Ganga Shreedhar, Kate Laffan, and Laura M. Giurge in the Harvard Business Review, the biggest consideration for employers and remote workers is providing opportunities for sustainable education [4, 5]. This can be as easy as holding workshops on best-practice or creating supportive sustainable policies. Outside of benefitting workers’ mental health, productivity, and environmental footprint, digital work can also be a boon for businesses themselves.
Companies can reduce their overheads related to running physical locations . Following the pandemic, 7 in 10 businesses in the United States closed some or all of their permanent locations, citing their workers’ mental health and the cost of operating a physical office space . This has a direct impact on budgeting but also on the environment, with less energy required to be used on buildings, in addition to a reduction in Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions .
However, embracing a hybrid or digital work environment can have further benefits. Employers offering the opportunity to work from home are more likely to retain staff, a key consideration that has been at the center of the debate of the “Great Resignation”, while younger workers from Gen Z have expressed an interest in having a choice in choosing their work environment . Within the global sustainability context, maintaining a sustainable, engaged workforce is a net-positive for any business.
Another positive aspect of shifting a portion of, if not the entirety of a company online is the diversity aspect, as Tatiana Reuil explains in the World Economy Forum , “Embracing borderless remote work could help companies improve their talent pool. Moreover, for companies seeking to boost Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), borderless remote work can help create a truly diverse and global workforce.”
Organizations opening themselves up to hire remote workers are not just ensuring that they will have an efficient workforce, but one that draws from a diverse background, and can help form bridges with workers in underrepresented communities [11, 12]. Embracing digital work practices can not only help your business, your workforce and their community, but also support the completion of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals . Have you considered how shifting parts of your business online can drive sustainability?
 Justin Fox, 2022, “Are Workers More Productive at Home?”, Bloomberg.
 Rani Molla, 2022, “Tell your boss: Working from home is making you more productive”, Vox.
 Adi Gaskell, 2021, “How Eco-Friendly Is Remote Working?”, Forbes.
 Ganga Shreedhar, Kate Laffan, and Laura M. Giurge, 2022, “Is Remote Work Actually Better for the Environment?”, Harvard Business Review.
 Vincent Diringer, 2022, “Sustainable Change Through Education”, LEAD-WiSE.
 Laurel Farrer, 2020, “Remote To The Rescue: How Virtual Jobs Are Saving The World”, Forbes.
 Digital, 2022, “7 in 10 businesses have permanently closed office space during the pandemic”.
 Carbon Trust, 2022, “Briefing: What are Scope 3 emissions?”.
 Raisa Bruner, 2021, “Remote Work Is All Gen Z Knows. But Are They Satisfied?” Time.
 Tatiana Reuil, 2022, “I believe the future of remote work is borderless and inclusive — here’s how we get there”, World Economic Forum
 Vincent Diringer, 2020, “How virtual events drive global inclusivity”, Island Innovation.
 LEAD-WiSE, 2022, “About”.
 Vincent Diringer, 2022, “Collaboration Towards the Goals: Working Together for Sustainability”, LEAD-WiSE.