• Decarbonization
  • Electric Mobility
  • Public Transit
  • City Innovation
  • COVID-19

Reducing Our Carbon Footprint through Remote Work

Sam Abuelsamid
Aug 13, 2020

Guidehouse Insights

The pandemic has undoubtedly been a tragedy, sickening more than 17 million people and killing nearly 700,000 at time of writing. While no one ever wants to endure such an event, it would be more tragic if we failed to take some positive lessons from what has happened. Since 2009, energy use has been a key emphasis of our work at Guidehouse Insights. The remote work movement that has taken hold in the past 6 months can play a key role in reducing our global carbon footprint.

The world has changed dramatically since the industrial revolution and the advent of the automobile. We’ve seen a shift from a largely agrarian society to a population where people go to other locations to work, which has led to severe congestion problems. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2019 Urban Mobility Report estimated that in 2017, Americans wasted 8.8 billion hours and 3.3 billion gallons of fuel stuck in traffic.

The global lockdowns that followed the coronavirus outbreak saw tens of millions of people around the world forced to start working from home. In the US alone, there was a 64% decline in vehicle miles traveled during April 2020. Many companies that never previously considered or allowed large-scale remote work suddenly found that employees adapted reasonably well, the decline in productivity was far less than anticipated, and, in many cases, productivity improved.

The Pandemic Is Showing a Reduced Need for Offices

A great many jobs cannot be done remotely, including most manufacturing jobs. However, many of the tasks done in offices don’t really need a commercial office space. In recent months, some of the largest technology companies (including Twitter and Facebook) have indicated that much of their workforces would be allowed to work remotely on a permanent basis going forward. In June 2020, Ford told 30,000 salaried employees that they would continue working from home until at least the beginning of 2021, and the company is evaluating permanent remote work for many positions. In the offices, employees won’t have assigned desks with personal belongings so more frequent cleaning can occur.

During an Automotive News virtual panel session, Maxime Picat, executive vice president of Groupe PSA, revealed that the French automaker already had 18,000 remote workers before the pandemic as part of its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Now, PSA is in the process of reconfiguring and scaling down all of its facilities. Post-pandemic, PSA plans to devote only 10% of its remaining offices to traditional desk areas. The other 90% will be for collaborative rooms when teams need to gather on the occasions when they do come to work. The rest of the time, employees will be remote.

Reimagining the City Post Pandemic

A KPMG study estimates that there will be a permanent 10% decrease in vehicle miles traveled in the US after the pandemic. As less office space is required, commercial real estate—especially in cities—can be converted to residential space that can be more affordable and accessible. Reduced demand for parking could see parking facilities converted to green spaces.

If cities are made more walkable and people are willing to live there post pandemic, they could more easily use micromobility and transit, both of which could lead to substantial reductions in carbon emissions. There is a significant opportunity for real positive change to emerge from the current health crisis. Hopefully governments and businesses will not let this disruptive moment slip through their fingers.