A mass move to working-from-home accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic might not be beneficial to Mother Earth as energy savings were offset by increased travel for recreation or other purposes, together with additional energy use in the home, says a new study.
The majority of studies on the subject analysed by the University of Sussex researchers in the UK agreed that working-from-home reduced commuter travel and energy use - by as much as 80 per cent in some cases.
Telecommuting increased energy use
But, according to the researchers, small number of studies found that telecommuting increased energy use or had a negligible impact, since the energy savings were offset by increased travel for recreation or other purposes.
"While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings," said study researcher Andrew Hook, Professor at the University of Sussex.
"Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited - with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption," Hook explained.
"While the lockdown has clearly reduced energy consumption, only some of those savings will be achieved in more normal patterns of teleworking," said study researcher Steven Sorrell.
"To assess whether teleworking is really sustainable, we need to look beyond the direct impact on commuting and investigate how it changes a whole range of daily activities," Sorrell added.
Energy imapcts of teleworking
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, provides a systematic review of current knowledge of the energy impacts of teleworking, synthesising the results of 39 empirical studies from the US, Europe, Thailand, Malaysia and Iran published between 1995 and 2019.
According to the researchers, even the mass migration of workers to home working might have only a small impact on overall energy usage.
One study noted that even if all US information workers teleworked for four days a week, the drop in national energy consumption would be significantly less effective than a 20 per cent improvement in car fuel efficiency.
The study also warns that technological advances could erode some of the energy savings due to the short lifetime and rapid replacement of Information and communications technology (ICTs), their increasingly complex supply chains, their dependence on rare earth elements and the development of energy-intensive processes such as cloud storage and video streaming.
The authors added that modern-day work patterns are becoming increasingly complex, diversified and personalised, making it harder to track whether teleworking is definitively contributing energy savings.
"Unless workers and employers fully commit to working from the home model, many of the potential energy savings could be lost," the researchers noted.
The research was conducted by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), a UK-based research centre, which tracks changes in energy demand.