Remote and hybrid work could help heal the planet

Illustration of a remote worker.

Remote and hybrid work existed before COVID-19, but these models became much more common since the pandemic began. A 2022 McKinsey & Company survey found nearly 60 percent of American workers can now work at least part of the time remotely, with the consulting firm noting that “flexible working has grown by anywhere from a third to tenfold since 2019.”

There are many benefits to remote and hybrid work — both for individuals and companies. Flexible arrangements have proven to be effective for organizational productivity, worker efficiency, and an individual’s work-life balance.

In this article

  • The concerns of being called back in
  • Less time at the office is better for the planet
  • Ditch the office, save a tree
  • Give your printer unlimited PTO
  • It’s up to us to reduce our environmental impact
Illustration of the money an individual remote worker could save.

Owl Labs found that 83 percent of remote workers felt they were equally productive, if not more, than when they were physically in an office. Remote work also saves companies money by reducing spending on office space, supplies, and energy usage. And the flexibility can benefit employee mental health by reducing psychological and physical stress, allowing for more personal and family time, less commuting, and greater control of one’s own schedule.

Remote and hybrid work produces cost savings, productivity and efficiency improvements, and personal health benefits. But these flexible work environments can have a great effect on our environment as well, individually and globally.

The concerns of being called back in

Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index Pulse Report validated the fears of many remote workers recently, finding that 50 percent of employers want employees back in the office five days a week. While perhaps not surprising, these companies should consider the shifting power and priorities of their employees and recognize that flexible work has become imperative for many people.

According to The Future of Time, a global study fielded by Adobe, more than half of all enterprise workers would switch jobs for the option to work remotely — including around 65 percent of millennial and Gen Z employees who make up an increasingly large share of the workforce.

Illustration of the state of remote work.

The study found that enterprise workers and business leaders alike spend about one-third of their work week on “unimportant tasks” like managing files, filling out forms, awaiting signatures, and collaborating on documents. More than 90 percent of both workers and leaders are interested in technology to make document tasks or processes more efficient, and 54 percent of employees said they would switch jobs for access to better tools that help them work more effectively.

Digitizing manual processes — for example, using a document management tool like Adobe Acrobat to request e-signatures — is a significant way not only to increase efficiency but also to improve sustainability. Through resource-free workflows, Adobe helps turn what would have been 30 billion paper documents in the US each year seamlessly into digital documents.

While digital tools are clearly important to employees and a major driver of remote capabilities, at the end of the day — and also the beginning — working from home is extremely appealing on its own. According to a FlexJobs survey, “not having a commute” was the top benefit mentioned by respondents in favor of remote work (84 percent), followed by cost savings (75 percent). Flexible work is a win — and not just for the employee.

Less time at the office is better for the planet

According to the EPA, 3 out of 4 Americans in 2019 drove to work, and more than 90 percent of those cars had just one occupant. With about 158 million workers in the US, that means there were more than 106 million solo commuters on the roads every day.

The pandemic transformed the office environment, which has had an impact on the global environment — and it also offered an opportunity to improve long-term sustainability efforts rather than return to damaging pre-COVID routines.

The National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service discovered that nitrogen dioxide pollution was reduced during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns. The study noted that in October 2020, even though lockdowns had been lifted months earlier, a significant portion of the workforce continued to work remotely in most urban areas. “So if employers continue to offer remote work policies,” the lead author wrote, “[the lingering decline in air pollution] could become the new normal in air quality.”

Illustration of remote work and remarkable impact.

According to McKinsey, 92 million Americans are able to work remotely at least part time. A 2022 Global Workplace Analytics study calculated that harmful greenhouse gas emissions from cars could be reduced by 54 million tons a year if telework-compatible US employees worked remotely half the time. With the standard passenger vehicle emitting 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, that would be like taking 11.7 million cars off the road — dramatically cutting the amount of greenhouse gas put into the air.

That’s good for the planet, but it’s great for an individual too — in terms of both their money and their time. Global Workplace Analytics found the average person can save up to $6,000 in travel and food costs working at home part time in a hybrid role.

And that’s not all. In 2021, the US Census Bureau reported that the average one-way commute is nearly 28 minutes — almost an hour round trip. Figuring 250 days of working days in a year — factoring in weekends and 10 vacation days — the typical hybrid worker could save 14,000 minutes per year in commuting time. That’s 233 hours, or nearly 30 eight-hour work days. So, you could save 3 times the amount of vacation days the average American worker gets per year just by not commuting.

Ditch the office, save a tree

Remote work also cuts down on plastic, paper, and other waste pollution. In offices, many workers use plastic straws, plastic utensils, styrofoam cups, and other single-use products that aren’t biodegradable, which can contribute to pollution, produce serious health issues, and threaten wildlife. Meanwhile, research shows that people adopt better sustainable waste practices and recycle more when they work at home.

With the average employee at large
organizations using about 10,000 sheets of
paper annually, companies that move to digital
document processes could save $284
per employee per year.

US businesses waste approximately $8 billion managing paper each year. More than a quarter of all waste dumped in landfill sites is discarded paper and paper products, and rotting paper creates methane gas, which is 25 times as toxic as carbon dioxide.

Paper waste is almost more staggering when you consider it on an individual level. According to the carbon offset company 8 Billion Trees, a standard pine tree produces 10,000 sheets of paper. That also happens to be the number of sheets of paper the average office worker uses each year, according to the EPA. So each year, every office worker uses the equivalent of one full tree. With approximately 90 million professional workers in the US, that’s no small impact. How many people work at your company?

Illustration of a pine tree and a person carrying sheets of paper.

Clearly, the effects of remote work are far-reaching. Think about it — not commuting to work reduces daily auto emissions. Not being in an office means less large-scale energy usage. Lights, heat, ventilation, water, and computers are all more likely to be left on when not in use at an office than at home. Replacing physical paperwork and manual processes with technological tools like digital document management wood, water, and waste.

Even as an individual, your impact on sustainability by working from home could be significant. And if your company adopts a sustainable culture and supportive policies organization-wide, it multiplies the impact and can reduce a larger carbon footprint.

Give your printer unlimited PTO

Using digital documents can save paper, cut down on waste, and increase efficiency. Sharing, saving, signing, and sending documents is crucial for any functioning business, and paperless processes are better for the environment, the company’s bottom line, and a worker’s time.

Adobe recently conducted research of more than 1,500 employees at large enterprises in the UK to study the impact of hybrid work on sustainability and how paper-intensive practices are affecting the environment, productivity, and business.

The research found that individual employees lost more than 28 working days per year on low-value paperwork tasks, such as scanning, physically signing, stapling and collating, and printing documents. In fact, each worker was printing almost 450 pages per week — or more than 20,000 pages a year — and, surprisingly, younger employees printed the most.

Encouragingly, more businesses are embracing digital technologies, with almost two-thirds of employees saying their employer has made use of digital signatures and digital document management tools since the beginning of the pandemic.

Among the digital tools that enable and empower employees to work remotely — not to mention effectively and sustainably — are solutions like Adobe Acrobat, which allows you to edit PDFs, as well as merge, compress, and convert documents.

It’s up to us to reduce our environmental impact

Through resource-free workflows, Adobe helps turn what would have been 30 billion paper documents in the US each year into digital documents. Companies like TSB Bank, ITV, and New Energy Nexus have realized they can reduce their environmental impact and experience business benefits too.

Remote and hybrid work produces cost savings,
productivity and efficiency improvements, and
mental health benefits. But these flexible work
environments can have a great effect on our
global environment as well.

While we all still have a long way to go on global sustainability, the research on remote and hybrid work — for individuals and organizations — suggests a positive impact on productivity and the environment. It may not happen overnight, but even one person making conscious efforts to reduce waste can keep the world a little cleaner.

We have the tools and technology to cut down on waste and help protect the environment. But it’s up to company leaders to set the tone and create best practices to support remote workers and sustainability initiatives.

Talk with your leadership about policies that could be implemented to increase employee and planet well-being. Digital document management is a great place to start.