Is remote better or worse for the planet?

We dig into the carbon impact of remote work.

This analysis was done in collaboration with Wren, a great service helping you reduce and offset your carbon footprint, as an individual or as a company.
I'm a customer both for Slite and for myself, and I can't recommend it enough.

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These are times of radical changes. We are faced with multiple global-scale phenomenons, seemingly disconnected, that will weigh heavily on each other.Here, we explore the interaction between two of those: climate change and the huge tide of remote work.

Even though I've been a strong believer in remote working for years - and while we made it the norm for our team - this discussion is even more interesting in the context of the current pandemic, forcing nearly all the "knowledge workers" to adopt this new way of working.

Why this analysis

Our civilization went off the charts on all levels when it comes to development: number of inhabitants, actualized value created, scientific progress... We did "more" in a single century than in the millennia preceding it.

But that did not come for free. We took and are still taking a huge debt on our planet. All this progress required more energy, food and other material consumption: we consumed non-renewable stock of rare materials, emitted a huge amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, gradually impoverished our soils, you know the story.

The scientific consensus now clearly shows that we need to pay back this debt or at least stop raising it, right now. In that context, as our habits keep evolving we need to be lucid: new isn't always better, and we need to bring the part of novelty that actually makes a positive difference.

So we sat down to answer a simple question: is remote better or worse for the planet?

The calculator

We built a very simple calculator to compare the CO2 costs of the same company in a physical office or remote environment.

Between each setup you have a few big factors able to counterbalance each other:

  • Remote working removes all the need for commute and office.
  • But remote workers travel often to gather physically.

To be noted, we don't attempt to compute the whole CO2 costs of your company, we simply compare office & remote setups.

Check the model live →

Our example

Here is a quick example of Slite's results. We are a small 22-people team, distributed but with a strong gravity center around Europe. We gather between three and six times a year, usually around Paris, but sometimes a bit further away.

Slite CO2 example

I had no idea what the results would look like when I started this. But it turns out all companies should be asking themselves this question.

  • for remote teams, how often and where you gather in person has a huge impact on your carbon footprint
  • colocated teams have a huge opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint if they go remote responsibly, while offering a better way to work to their employees 😁.

I know this will impact our way to work, as we'll prioritize finding a city reducing our bill over its touristic appeal. From my experience the latter really doesn't matter for team retreats, your team is the one bringing the magic ✨.

Clone the spreadsheet, try it out for yourselves by entering your employee locations, and let us know what you think.

And once again
Check out Wren →

Notes on this model

It's worth noting some cost-headings are too complex or too light to be considered. For instance:

  • I would expect office buildings to be suboptimal in terms of energy consumption, as either heating or AC are turned on at all times. But as it weighs low against transport I decided to not include it in this analysis.
  • We don't consider business travel, as we assume it would be similar in both setups.
  • We also don't consider the carbon footprint of using video services, as it's trivial compared to the carbon footprint of flying.

Other assumptions:

  • We also consider, based on our qualitative experience, folks in remote companies either work from home or walk/cycle to their co-working spaces.
  • We assume employees are flying to their team retreats on economy tickets. If they flew business class, the carbon footprint would be significantly higher.

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