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Remote work can significantly reduce carbon footprints, study finds

[Sept. 20, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

As the post-pandemic world struggles to adapt to a "new normal", a significant shift towards remote work is making waves. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

As the post-pandemic world struggles to adapt to a "new normal", a significant shift towards remote work is making waves not just in the corporate realm, but in the fight against climate change.

A groundbreaking study jointly carried out by Cornell University and tech giant Microsoft unveils the untapped environmental benefits of remote and hybrid working structures, with significant reductions in carbon footprints seen among workers who operate from the confines of their homes.


According to the study, remote workers can leave a carbon footprint that's a staggering 54% lower than their onsite counterparts.

Furthermore, hybrid workers, those blending home and office routines, working from home between two to four days weekly can lessen their carbon footprint by an impressive 11% to 29%. However, merely working from home one day a week appears to offer limited benefits, shaving only 2% off the carbon emission statistics.


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But like all good research, this study digs deeper than surface statistics. “Remote work is not zero carbon, and the benefits of hybrid work are not perfectly linear,” stated Fengqi You, a prominent professor in energy systems engineering at Cornell. Delving into the intricacies of the study, he explained, “Everybody knows without commuting you save on transportation energy, but there’s always lifestyle effects and many other factors.”

The comprehensive research presented by Cornell and Microsoft was based on detailed survey data and robust modeling. It shed light on aspects often overlooked in conventional carbon footprint calculations.


Factors considered included residential energy use determined by time-use allocation, non-commute distance and mode of transportation, the use of communication devices, the number of occupants in a household, and intricate details of office configurations like seat sharing and building dimensions.

Methodology to investigate the climate change mitigation effects of remote and hybrid work in the United States. Residential energy use, non- commute- related travel, commuting, office energy use, and ICT services are included in the system boundary. Acronyms: natural gas (NG), remote work/remote worker (RW), onsite work/onsite worker (OW). (CREDIT: PNAS)

Some of the study's pivotal findings and observations comprise:

  • A surge in non-commute travel, encompassing social and recreational jaunts, as remote workdays rise.

  • Office seat sharing amongst hybrid workers in a full-building attendance scenario could slash carbon footprint by up to 28%.

  • Housing choices impact travel, with hybrid workers often commuting longer distances compared to those entirely onsite.

  • The repercussions of remote and hybrid work structures on communication technology usage like computers, phones, and internet services have an almost negligible effect on the overall carbon footprint.


While these findings are illuminating, Longqi Yang, the principal applied research manager at Microsoft and the research's corresponding author, poses an essential question: “The findings suggest organizations should prioritize lifestyle and workplace improvements. But what behaviors should these companies and other policy makers be encouraging to maximize the benefits?”

Effect of remote and hybrid work on carbon footprint in the case of US Microsoft. (A–C) Show how transit type and trip origin and destination pairs differ by remote and onsite workers for non- commute- related travel. (D) Shows the variation in residential energy use. (CREDIT: PNAS)

Delving deeper, Fengqi You asserts that a focused approach is needed, emphasizing that companies and policymakers should hone in on incentivizing public transportation over personal vehicles, relinquishing office space allocated for full-time remote workers, and enhancing the energy efficiency standards of office buildings.


Such studies underline the vast potential global benefits. “Globally, every person, every country and every sector have these kinds of opportunities with remote work. How could the combined benefits change the whole world? That's something we really want to advance our understanding of,” remarked Yanqiu Tao, a doctoral student at Cornell and the primary author of this groundbreaking study.

The study utilized data not only from Microsoft but from the American Time Use Survey, the National Household Travel Survey. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

To ensure comprehensive analysis, the study utilized data not only from Microsoft but from the American Time Use Survey, the National Household Travel Survey, and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey. Furthermore, the National Science Foundation played a pivotal role in supporting this research endeavor.


As the world rapidly transitions, the environmental impacts of remote and hybrid work models present an exciting area of exploration. With the potential to significantly reduce carbon footprints, the onus now lies on companies and policymakers to take informed actions based on these findings, championing a greener future.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by the The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


Note: Materials provided above by the Western Sydney University. Content may be edited for style and length.


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