Hi, everyone: Cisco is starting Week 7 of working from home. A couple months ago, maybe you didn’t know the acronym WFH… working from home. Fortunately, remote working has been part of Cisco’s work and management culture for years. So, when our CEO announced the transition, the switch was instant and painless.
Everyone at Cisco already had the tools and experience to work from home. We all have Cisco AnyConnect VPN pre-installed on our laptops. Some 25,000 Cisconians use Cisco Virtual Office, which includes an 800-series small-medium business router, permanently connected to the Cisco network—with built-in company WiFi—and an IP phone. Many of us also have a DX80 Webex video conferencing unit. It’s a great setup.
On an individual level, perhaps you’ve found some advantages to working from home you hadn’t expected. Yes, it’s a little noisier with everyone in the house, but is your productivity improved from not spending time commuting? Are you on time to more meetings that require just a click of the mouse to attend? Are you learning virtual meeting skills that will carry forward after the pandemic subsides? Is the flexibility to balance your work and home schedules a bigger benefit than you previously thought?
Effectively closing down much of the economy has demonstrated that the promise of sustainable economic growth is still ahead of us. The reduced economic activity has improved air quality due to less transportation and manufacturing, but with a heavy impact on employment and the availability of goods and services. So there remains a vexing tradeoff between the environment and the economy that neatly captures the challenge of the sustainability professional.
We’ve received several inquiries about whether working from home reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In general, working from home reduces GHG emissions, but there are circumstances where that might not be true.
Emissions we must consider stem from commuting, home energy use, and workplace energy use. When we switch to working from home, GHG emissions from these activities may change as follows:
- commuting (should decrease)
- home energy use (probably increases)
- workplace energy use (should decrease)
When working from home, your energy use goes up with more lighting and heating/air conditioning. That increase is offset by not physically traveling to the office. If you take mass transit, that bus or train will likely run whether you’re on it or not so there’s no immediate savings if you work from home. But suppose you drive an electric vehicle (EV):
- If you live in Vermont, Idaho, or Washington, where the GHG emissions from electricity generation are very low (0.03, 0.07, and 0.09 kg CO2e/kWh, respectively, in 2018), not driving your EV to work doesn’t reduce GHG emissions much.
- If you live in Wyoming, West Virginia, or Kentucky (0.83, 0.89, and 0.94 kg CO2e/kWh), not commuting with that EV reduces emissions a lot (unless you charge your EV with solar panels on your house).
The first three states get most of their electricity from low-carbon hydro, nuclear, and wind/solar, the last three states mostly from coal, which emits the most GHG emissions per kilowatt of power.
The same electricity emissions factor is in play when considering the likely bump to your home energy consumption when you work from home. If you drive an EV, your emissions savings from not commuting is low, but the bump in GHG emissions from your home electricity consumption is also low. The largest potential GHG emissions savings when working from home occur if you drive a gas or diesel car or truck—especially one with less-than-lofty gas mileage or on a longer commute—in a state with a low electricity emissions factor. In this case, your commuting emissions are reduced a lot when you work from home, and the increase in GHG emissions from increased home occupancy is small.
There are additional complications that depend on your climate zone, whether someone is home when you’re at work, and whether you religiously turn back (or off) the thermostat when you leave the house (most people don’t). I’m located in the San Francisco Bay Area, where air conditioning is needed just a few days a year, the winters are mild, and our family turns off the furnace when we leave and at night. I also have CFL or LED light bulbs throughout the house, so running my house doesn’t require much energy. Over the last 17 years, we’ve averaged 50 therms and 425 kWh per month (the U.S. monthly average electricity use was more than twice ours, 917 kWh in 2018). The situation will be different in a cold climate, requiring constant heating just to keep the pipes from freezing in winter (think Buffalo, New York) or a hot/humid climate, where 24-hour air conditioning in the summer is almost mandatory (think Houston or Phoenix).
The last factor to consider is the energy consumption at work. In the short term, much like the case with mass transit, workplace energy consumption likely won’t change if you decide to work from home. Typically, the lights stay on. Perhaps, in the summer, slightly less air conditioning is required because the building has one less warm body, but offset by a bit more heating in the winter because you’re working from home.
When working from home becomes widespread, the situation changes. At Cisco, once working from home reached critical mass, we were able to switch from dedicated offices to shared work space. This allowed consolidation of our buildings and increased building utilization. As a result, Cisco has exited more than a dozen buildings at our headquarters site in San Jose, California. After all, the most energy-efficient building is the one you don’t need. Reduced energy consumption at work can offset any increase at home.
In summary, working from home saves energy and reduces GHG emissions, but the savings can vary and in some circumstances could increase.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.