Telecommuting and Climate Change: An Easy Choice for Employees and Companies

climate change is making telecommuting more critical than ever before

This is the first post in VC Daily’s telecommuting series.

Little more than 30 years ago, scientists discovered a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer three times the size of the continental U.S. In just over 30 years from now, that hole will be completely healed, and we the public had no active part to play in the solution.

The hole in the gas shield that absorbs the worst of the sun’s UV rays was supposed to scorch the face of the planet, with a 1980s environmentalist describing the anticipated calamity as AIDS falling from the sky.

That grim fate was avoided, however, and the situation reversed thanks to the Montreal Protocol that banned the production of the aerosol sprays and refrigeration components that made up 75% of ozone-destroying chemicals.

The Protocol became the most successful climate change agreement in history, in part because greener technologies were readily available to industry, and because it made no demands on the public–short of buying a modern fridge rather than a second-hand one.

As our climate change problems continue today, there’s another potential solution on hand that’s a similar win-win–it’s good for business and doesn’t require an environmentally conscious public. Telecommuting and climate change are a perfect pair, because working from home is an earth-saving solution disguised as a better way of doing business.

Telecommuting Is Cleaning the Air Around You

It’s a shame telecommuting is the only form of mass transport that doesn’t have a way of displaying bumper stickers. I’m sure my “I’m Working from Home to Save Your World” slogan is smug enough be a hit.

It’s certainly true.

Replacing your car, bus, or train with an internet connection and a webcam removes thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions from our roads and cities. The TeleWork Coalition estimates that if a third of the U.S. workforce were to telecommute to work just one day a week it would prevent the release of 423,000 tons of greenhouse gases, which is equal to removing 77,000 cars from the roads for a full year.

The key to that point is how few people it takes to make a genuine impact–just a third of the workforce telecommuting one day a week. That’s an attainable number considering that last year more than 40% of the U.S. workforce spent at least some time working remotely.

And that’s just the emissions side of things. There are other benefits to increasing telecommuting and making the trek into the office less often.

Telecommuting Is Saving Energy

The Consumer Technology Association found that the use of telecommuting in 2013 alone reduced America’s energy use by three power plants worth of output, or enough to meet the needs of almost 750,000 households for an entire year. It further estimates that telecommuting has already reduced U.S. gasoline consumption by half a percent, saving 1 in every 200 gallons of gas. That’s big picture thinking on telecommuting as a climate change solution, but there are also practical examples of individual companies embracing remote employment for these energy-saving benefits.

Both Dell and Xerox have launched programs to reduce their energy consumption, in part by encouraging telecommuting among staff. In their “2020 Legacy of Good” plan, Dell pledged to have half its global workforce working remotely by 2020. In the first full year of operation, the plan reduced the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6,700 tons, eliminating the equivalent of 16 million miles of driving. Xerox’s Virtual Workplace Program likewise resulted in more than 10% of staff working from home, and the telecommuters saved a combined 4.6 million gallons of gas.

Realistically, though, few companies employ telecommuting primarily for its environmental benefits. That’s what makes telecommuting a climate change solution in disguise–it’s a sound business practice and a positive lifestyle option for employees that removes greenhouse gases from the world as a side effect.

Telecommuting and Climate Change: Eco-Friendly by Stealth

We don’t need all 142 million employed Americans to become full-time telecommuters overnight for the practice to have a significant positive impact. As we mentioned earlier, having just around a third of the workforce commute electronically once a week significantly reduces toxic emissions. Recent research has shown that 50% of Americans hold a job that is compatible with telecommuting, meaning that the chance of hitting that goal of about 30% of workers telecommuting once a week is surprisingly realistic.

To get there, you just need to sell people on the business and lifestyle advantages telecommuting offers:

  • Telecommuters have lower stress levels and are less frequently absent
  • Businesses save around $11,000 per year for every telecommuter
  • Telecommuting employee turnover rates are 50% lower than average
  • 80% of telecommuters report a better work/life balance

Just as removing the ozone-depleting chemicals from our deodorant cans meant consumers didn’t even have to make a choice at the checkout to contribute environmentally, so too does taking advantage of the personal and professional advantages of telecommuting lead to automatic climate change benefits.

It’s just a fact that regaining that personal time lost in traffic is a far more powerful call to arms than removing invisible gases from the skies. Telecommuting is the climate change solution that makes your day to day life more enjoyable, which is why it’s also excitingly feasible.

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