Just two weeks ago, the suggestion that many people would soon be working exclusively from home would have been met with disbelief. Home office? Out of the question! Yet in the short time since then curfews have been imposed in some German states and teleworking has become the new normal – at least for jobs that depend largely on a computer and Internet access.
The idea of virtual working has long held the promise of ecological benefits like a reduction in transport-related emissions. An article from 2004 stated that “[information technologies] are opening up opportunities for replacing both goods and passenger transport through technologies such as digital telephony, e-mail, Internet, and videoconferencing” (Berkhout & Hertin, 2004). And in its 2008 report, the ICT industry’s Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) predicted that the use of tele- and videoconferencing technologies could lead to a reduction in business travel by up to 20 per cent as well as producing 80 million tons less carbon emissions (Climate Group & GeSI, 2008).
More business trips due to digitalisation
But recent history has proved this theory wrong. The last two decades have seen a significant increase in business trips and associated emissions. The VDR, Germany’s business travel association, reported an 8 per cent rise in business travel in German companies in the period from 2014 to 2018 alone (VDR, 2018). Despite the simultaneous strong growth in the uptake of digital communications via email and videoconferencing, the “virtualisation effect” has not brought about an overall reduction in business travel activity. On the contrary, in some cases the use of digital technologies has contributed to an increase in the number of business trips by enabling online connections with far-flung contacts and the business trips that result from that, and by allowing us to use travel times more efficiently with cloud-based tools. To put it simply, the mere availability of digital technologies expands our networks and ultimately encourages more business travel (Clausen, Schramm & Hintemann, 2019).
Is Covid-19 changing how we work?
Meanwhile the global spread of the coronavirus is completely transforming how we collaborate. The necessity of social distancing is forcing many companies and institutions to send their staff home to work. Conferences have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, and business meetings at home and abroad have become more difficult. The suspension of most physical meetings and business trips should once again raise hopes of a reduction in carbon emissions due to the virtualisation of the working world.
Home office: a blessing and a curse for employees
While the point of virtual meetings and teleworking is currently to reduce social interactions to an absolute minimum during the pandemic, by the time the health crisis is over (hopefully in the near future) virtual working may have become so normal that people do not want to do without it. This has pros and cons for employees and employers alike.
For employees, the isolation of working from home, without the usual interactions with their colleagues and the daily trip to the cantine, can lead to problems, at least in the longer term. Maintaining a boundary between one’s private and professional life can also be more difficult from home. Then there are the issues of IT security and occupational safety and health, as well as the challenge of juggling work and childcare at a time when schools and crèches are closed. Yet for some employees, the prospect of spending more quality time with their families can make up for these disadvantages. Others may appreciate the comfort of their own four walls, greater worktime flexibility, and the possibility of cooking their own food.
New opportunities and risks for employers
In the current situation employers have a new duty of care to reduce the negative effects of social isolation and overwork on their employees. A major reorganisation of business procedures may be necessary to enable the digitalisation of work processes in the first place. In this way, the demand for home office and the modernisation of IT infrastructure that that requires in one’s own institution could also speed up the digitalisation process in other areas. Being more flexible when it comes to employees’ physical presence in the workplace and at meetings can also help employers achieve social targets like a work-family balance.
Cost savings on transport and the provision of office accommodation for employees are also not to be sniffed at. Further cited advantages include improved communication between colleagues working from home rather than in an open-plan office as well as more efficient performance of routine tasks. And if the digitalisation of the workplace is seen through the lens of a company's climate protection goals, it can also be grasped as an opportunity to achieve emission reductions, for example, if emissions are initially offset and each employee is later allocated a virtual climate budget that they must strive to reduce.
Videoconferencing more environmentally friendly than business trips
Videoconferencing can be an environmentally friendly alternative to business trips. While the relocation of the working world to the digital realm does result in heightened electricity demand and greater requirements for hardware, software and infrastructure, the carbon footprint of a videoconference is still many times smaller than that of face-to-face meetings. Behrendt et al. (2005) estimate that a videoconference requires 30 times less primary energy than a 100-kilometer business trip by car and 500 times less primary energy than a 1,000-kilometer plane journey. Ong, Moors und Sivamaran (2014) have calculated that energy savings of 92% to 95% result when a five-hour physical meeting involving four persons who travel different distances to get there is substited by a videoconference. Thus in the vast majority of cases, dispensing with internal and external business trips, particularly when they involve business partners from far and wide, is an effective emissions reduction measure.
If businesses and institutions want to ensure that virtual working is ecologically sound, they also need to counteract the “rebound effect” described above, where increasingly affordable ICT has expanded national and international networks, resulting in more contacts and meetings, even with business partners in remote places. Since it’s unlikely that the globalisation trend will be reversed despite the systemic risks that have become apparent in this crisis, institutions and businesses now need to reflect more on how international cooperation can be better aligned with the goal of reducing emissions.
Time to rethink priorities
The question of whether a shift towards more digital meetings will actually lead to less business travel – and hence less emissions – will also depend on the extent to which videoconferencing and simple e-mails and phone calls prove their effectiveness for business purposes. Small things like microphone quality and following simple rules of conduct can increase the success of online collaboration (Clausen &Schramm, 2019). The Internet is currently awash with various lists of dos and don’t for virtual working. It will be interesting to see what powers of invention will be released in the present situation to develop new solutions for online work. Because the fact is that basic problems that dog business communications and cooperation under normal circumstances may, at worst, be exacerbated in the virtual realm and will certainly not be easy to resolve with unfamiliar online tools, which are themselves time-consuming.
Will the drastic restrictions imposed in response to the global health emergency change our perspectives on virtual working and business travel? That depends on whether we really want to bring about a cultural shift. Obviously, not all professions lend themselves to teleworking. But people whose jobs revolve around exchanging information and generating ideas and knowledge, should think long and hard about how their everyday work routines could be brought into line with the goal of environmental protection. For this to happen, employers also need to be prepared to set aside their reservations and be open to this change. Once it becomes clear that virtual meetings are effective, the financial departments of institutions and businesses are likely to endorse a reduction in business travel and the resulting cost savings.
Heeding the early-warning signs of social and ecological crises
Doing justice to the diversity of human communications in the digital realm is a considerable challenge. Building trust even without being able to register our counterpart’s facial expressions and gestures, without knowing if the “chemistry is right”, and without the usual lunchtime conversations or afterwork beer, will demand our creativity and adaptability under changed circumstances. Any further rise in business travel will increasingly be called into question in view of the ecological crisis we face. It will also be deemed economically unacceptable in many cases. Resisting this development by following one’s gut feeling that face-to-face meetings are essential and refusing to entertain new solutions will be an indefensible position in future. Instead, we need to take an active part in shaping a new world of work.
At a more abstract level, the discussion about adapting to working from home may prompt the following question: Can we transfer the (new) skills we are developing to cope with the health crisis to the task of surmounting the climate crisis? Hopefully the current situation is an opportunity to review our priorities and combat climate change with the same vigour and conviction we are bringing to the health emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic is an urgent reminder of how fragile our social coexistence is. We would do well to heed the early-warning signs of social and ecological crises.
Behrendt, S., Henseling, C. & Fichter, K. (2005). Chancenpotenziale für nachhaltige Produktnutzungs-systeme im E-Business. E-Business und nachhaltige Produktnutzung durch mobile Multimedi-adienste. No. 71. Berlin: IZT.
Berkhout & Hertin (2004): De-materialising and re-materialising: digital technologies and the environment. Futures, 36(8), 903-920.
Clausen, J. & Schramm, S. (2019). CliDiTrans Werkstattbericht 3-2: Wege zu einer neuen Konferenz-kultur. Reisen erschweren - Teleconferencing entwickeln. Berlin: Borderstep.
Clausen, J., Schramm, S.& Hintemann, R. (2019). CliDiTrans Werkstattbericht 3-2: Virtuelle Konferenzen und Online-Zusammenarbeit in Unternehmen: Effektiver Klimaschutz oder Mythos? Berlin: Borderstep Institut.
Climate Group & GeSI. (2008). SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age. Climate Group on behalf of the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI). Last accessed on 9.7.2014. Available at: https://www.greenbiz.com/sites/default/files/document/Smart-2020-Report…
Cloudfare (2020): On the shoulders of giants: recent changes in Internet traffic. Available at: https://blog.cloudflare.com/on-the-shoulders-of-giants-recent-changes-i…
Ong, D., Moors, T. & Sivaraman, V. (2014). Comparison of the energy, carbon and time costs of vide-oconferencing and in-person meetings. Computer Communications, (50), 86–94.
VDR (2018): VDR-Geschäftsreiseanalyse 2019. Available at: https://www.vdr-service.de/fileadmin/services-leistungen/fachmedien/ges…