Working from home office set-up with a cat on the windowsill

Remote working is here to stay, but what does it mean for climate change?

By Dr Jason Begley, Centre for Business in Society

Changing work patterns and their impact on emissions

As coverage of COP 28 intensifies and headline news around fossil fuel emissions dominates, the timing is right to consider the impact of other lifestyle changes on global warming. Remote working (or working from home) offers the potential for promoting sustainability gains. For example, dramatic changes to mobility, production and consumption patterns as a consequence of COVID 19 lockdowns in many countries, temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17 percent from peak levels in 2019 compared to April 2020 (Shreedhar et al, 2022). Working from home (WFH) played a crucial part in this reduction, as commuting patterns dropped drastically. However, even though WFH numbers remain high, emissions have rebounded: reduced work travel has been replaced by increasing short trips for non-work purposes, allied to this has been a proliferation of electronic devices supplied by firms supporting home workers, inadvertently driving up e-waste. Meanwhile energy savings depend on the sustainability level of energy suppliers (Ibid).

The role of Covid in increasing working from home numbers

The growth in WFH numbers has been remarkable, in part due to the Covid pandemic of 2019-23. For over three years the Covid virus was classified as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2023). The response by many international governments was to lockdown and establish WFH practices for those in the workforce who could support it. Support for WFH had already been growing since the 1970s, promoted as a solution to congestion and improving work-life balance. Numbers involved in remote working practices had been slowly increasing prior to the pandemic, as technological breakthroughs made WFH more convenient and accessible (Richards et al, 2024).

In the UK, lockdowns associated with Covid saw the numbers WFH increase fourfold in a matter of months. Between January and December 2019, approximately 12% of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week. During the pandemic, this figure peaked at 49% in June 2020 (Mutebi and Hobbs, 2022). Numbers have since decreased to approximately 22%, but are slowly increasing again, with more workers than ever before pursuing hybrid-working practices (Ibid). Increased support and new, more refined electronic tools have facilitated this change in circumstances, particularly in sectors such as finance, professional and business services, and information/tech companies (Barrero et al, 2023).

The climate change challenge: can remote working help reduce emissions?

The UK government’s response has been broadly supportive of these changing working practices. A recent consultation by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with UK employees and employers stated their commitment to flexible working. Unions and employers were also keen to pursue new modes of flexible working, though the latter did offer caveats on ensuring sustained levels of productivity and accountability (BEIS, 2022). Research also shows that amongst employees, WFH appeals to older workers seeking to avoid early retirement through flexible employment solutions. Employees with children, particularly women, were also in favour of WFH. Conversely, younger people who desired more mentoring and support were less in favour (Barrero et al, 2023).

Ultimately, remote working and hybrid work practices appear to have become embedded in daily work life in the UK, with the Covid pandemic playing a key part in this process. However, the potential for emission reduction associated with travel reduction can only be realised if employees and employers optimise sustainability gains when agreeing the conditions of remote working. Less travel, less paper waste, less power usage by commercial buildings, more opportunities for walking and cycling in cleaner air, all show the potential of WFH. However, CO2 savings are dependent on the actions of workers themselves (Schupak, 2021). Companies also have a role to play; for example, avoiding duplication of devices, such as laptops, or accounting for sustainability impacts when subsidising home energy bills (Shreedhar et al, 2022).

Remote work can be an environmental boon if carefully planned. As social awareness and interest in a range of remote work practices grows, the sustainability and environmental impact of these changes must also be considered.


Shreedhar, G., Laffan, K. and Giurge, L., 7 March 2022. ‘Is remote work actually better for the environment?’ Harvard Business Review. Online at:

World Health Organisation [WHO], 2023. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Online at:

Mutebi, N. and Hobbs, A., 2022. The impact of remote and hybrid working on workers and organisations. UK Parliament POST, POSTbrief 49. Online at:

Richards, A., Convery, S., O’Mahony, M. and Caulfield, B., 2024. ‘Pre and post Covid preferences for working from home.’ Travel Behaviour and Society, 34. Online at:

Barrero, J.M., Bloom, N. and Davis, S.J., 2023. ‘The evolution of working from home.’ Preprint, Stanford University. Online, available at:

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS], 2022. ‘Making flexible working the default: The Government response’. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Online at:

Schupak A, ‘Is remote working better for the environment? Not necessarily.’ Guardian, 2 August 2021. Online at:

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.