Does Hybrid Work Reduce Carbon Footprint? It's Complicated

Compared to either fully office-based or remote, could it be the worst of both worlds?

Everybody, back to the office!
Everybody, back to the office.

Bettman Archives / Getty Images

Many companies are pushing to get their employees back to the office, calling it critical for maintaining the corporate culture. This Treehugger has often written that the third industrial revolution would be the end of the office and that in the future it would be a coffee shop: "The major purpose of an office now is to interact, to get around a table and talk, to schmooze. Just what you do in a coffee shop."

The main reason I was so enthusiastic about the end of the office was the energy and carbon it would save. Not just the gas in the cars or the building operations, but the massive embodied and upfront carbon from building office buildings and the highways, subways, and other infrastructure designed to meet the peak demand of the morning and afternoon commute.

Many employees do not want to go back to the office full-time, and many companies are settling into the concept of hybrid offices, where employees work from home a couple of days per week. But while totally closing offices and eliminating commutes could make a big difference in emissions, what is the impact of going hybrid? The Carbon Counter at The Financial Times had a look at this and came up with some interesting—and some questionable—conclusions. They conclude hybrid might be the worst of both worlds:

"A half-empty office needs much the same heating and air conditioning as a full one. Giving up the commute two days a week may not be enough to cancel out the extra heating and lighting needed at home. That is the case for a British worker who lives alone and — like 69 percent of his compatriots — drives to work."

They see a slightly different picture in the U.S. where "there are bigger savings from homeworking, largely down to a cut in the time spent driving gas-guzzling cars." They also worry that people are moving further from the city, being willing to have longer commutes for fewer days per week, and they are moving to bigger suburban houses, where they have twice the footprint of someone living in the city.

The Carbon Counter estimates that full-time home working has a footprint of about half of full-time office working in the U.S., but only a minor saving in carbon emissions with a switch to three days in the office, two at home, based on a 22-mile commute and a 40% increase in heating and electricity for those days working from home.

I suspect the savings are going to be greater. No company is going to keep 100% of their office space for two-thirds of the number of people and will eventually rationalize this, especially when the pandemic is over and they are no longer worrying about social distancing. Companies are going to do a lot more "hot-desking" where employees do not have permanent personal spots, which many find makes the office less attractive an option, encouraging more people to work from home as much as they can.

I also noted earlier that office workers are not the only people who come to the office; there are also support and service workers who serve them coffee and operate the shops, who I thought might also follow the workers and set up where they live. I noted: "People have to get out of the office just to get out of the office, and will likely feel the same about their home office. This could lead to a dramatic increase in customers for local businesses and services in the local neighborhoods." So there is a compounding effect on carbon savings as the service industry follows the money.

But the Carbon Counter is not alone in thinking that hybrid offices might not be so carbon-efficient. I noted earlier there might be less demand for public transit and highway expansions, but Reuters analyst John Kemp reports crowded subways are a feature, not a bug. "Public transportation systems rely on high levels of ridership and capacity utilization to cover their high fixed costs and keep fares affordable, as well as making them very energy efficient," writes Kemp.

Service businesses will have their trade diluted at both ends. Kemp also notes that "fully occupied central offices and transit systems usually make very efficient use of energy, while residential properties are often far less efficient." He concludes:

"The result is that hybrid work could make almost everyone, from employers and employees to transit operators and service businesses, worse off than either fully office-based or fully remote working."

We won't know until we read all the meters in a couple of years, but Kemp is persuasive. From a carbon point of view, the hybrid office might well be the worst of both worlds.