Business Leadership
November 16, 2023

Sustainability in the Workplace: Rethinking Return to Office Mandates for a Greener Future

We recently discussed ways in which the staffing industry can create more environmentally and sustainable supply chains. And climate change is a very hot topic in the news this week, with reporters covering the fairly damning National Climate Assessment issued by the government. Another persistent issue we see in the media involves the return to office (RTO) debacle, with 90% of employers now demanding workers back to their desks and many of those workers crying foul. Here’s the thing that our industry isn’t really talking about: both stories are related. Simply put, the utilities needed to operate physical locations, along with the requisite commutes to them, are significant contributors to carbon emissions and pollution. It’s probably time to look at hybrid working arrangements from a greener lens.

Is Sustaining In-Office Work Sustainable?

Over the past year, we have seen plenty of trending topics in industry media related to staffing. Some of those subjects are recent and topically prominent, such as economic uncertainty and layoffs. Others have become familiar old friends, cozy in their way. They include the ongoing march to bolster diversity and inclusion in the face of increasingly discriminatory legislation, the focus on combating burnout and strengthening employee wellness, and the return to office tug-of-war being battled between executives and workers. Interestingly, many of these issues share common traits and relationships. And in the center, the return to office (RTO) dilemma often sits. 

Despite volumes of data that demonstrated high productivity and even higher morale during the boom period of remote work, most business leaders now claim the office is better. It’s interesting, though. Maintaining brick-and-mortar is expensive. Commuting costs workers time and money, both uncompensated. And combined, they are increasing the output pollution. 

As Raymond Zhong summed it up for the New York Times: “The food we eat and the roads we drive on. Our health and safety. Our cultural heritage, natural environments and economic flourishing. Nearly every cherished aspect of American life is under growing threat from climate change and it is effectively too late to prevent many of the harms from worsening over the next decade, a major report from the federal government has concluded.” 

Still, according to the latest ResumeBuilder survey, 9 out of 10 companies will require employees to return to the office. The battle between talent who demand working location flexibility and executives who demand an in-office presence illustrates a profound generational and cultural disconnect in 21st century corporate America. 

To understand this disconnect, let’s look at an eye-opening article from CNBC’s Alex Sherman. In it, he wrote: “The Future Forum, developed by workplace-messaging platform Slack, surveyed more than 10,000 workers globally in the summer of 2021 and found an ‘executive-employee disconnect’ with regard to returning to work. Three-quarters of all executives reported they want to work from the office three to five days a week, compared with about one-third of employees. Among executives who have primarily worked completely remotely through the pandemic, 44% said they wanted to come back to the office every day. Just 17% of employees said the same.”

Studies also continue to show that work from home (WFH) is productive. In its research Owl Labs concluded, “Several studies over the past few months show productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office setting. On average, those who work from home spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive.”

Another project by Stanford, covering 16,000 workers over 9 months, found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. Without commute times and office distractions, workers reported being able to handle more calls, generate greater output, and spend more time focusing on work than when they were required to be at the office. In the same study, workers also cited improved work satisfaction. As an added bonus to business leaders. attrition rates fell by 50%. In the face of data, it’s hard to see the “return to office” hardliners as anything but out of their own comfort zones. 

There Are Financial and Human Benefits to Remote Work

Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda quipped in an interview that he doesn’t even know where most of his staff are at any given moment. His $2.6 billion online-learning company, whose profits increased by 23% from last year, has a “remote-first” policy. He says the business retains talent for longer and finds it easier to hire high-quality candidates. It makes sense, when you consider how expensive RTO has become for workers with rising gas prices, child care costs, vehicle maintenance, and so on. In speaking with CNBC, OwlLabs CEO Frank Weishaupt declared “There’s no question” working from the office is "wildly more expensive” today than it was before the pandemic. Workers polled said ​​they now spend $51 each day on average when they go into work, $31 more than if they were doing their job from home.

Dave Rietsema is the Founder and CEO of, a Human Resources software company. He told TheStreet’s Michael Tedder: “Companies can save up to $11,000 per employee in terms of overhead costs if they switch to remote work. This is because companies with remote workers pay less in overhead costs such as utilities and resources for in-office employees as well as just needing less office space.”

And as we illustrated in our February article “Your Return to the Office Problem Could Become a Diversity Problem,” WFH provided a boost to DEIB efforts, helping companies better utilize underrepresented talent, including the neurodiverse, rural talent, people of color, and the gender diverse. WHF seemed to offer advantages all around. 

But all of that aside, we still have the unspoken problem of the environment. With increasing pressure on businesses to develop serious, practical, and attainable sustainability goals, perhaps business leaders need to factor in the ecological impacts of RTO.

You Really Can’t Buy Green with Greenbacks

In 2015, Xerox reported that its teleworkers drove 92 million fewer miles, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 41,000 metric tons. Unlike corporate sustainability programs that attempt to achieve green status by planting trees and purchasing carbon offsets, the lack of commuting during remote work made a material dent in pollution. But with 90% of businesses wanting people driving back to brick-and-mortar facilities, tree planting and carbon offsets are the big strategies for big companies. Sadly, as Greenpeace noted, “The biggest problem with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t really work.”

Carbon Offset Initiatives May Be Off the Mark

“Companies love talking about carbon offsetting, Alia al Ghussain wrote in her article for Greenpeace. “But to be serious about tackling climate change, they need to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place.”

“Offsetting is a way of paying for others to reduce emissions or absorb CO2 to compensate for your own emissions,” she added. “For example, by planting trees to suck carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow, or by delivering energy-efficient cooking stoves to communities in developing countries. Sounds great, right? Sadly, the way out of the climate emergency is just not that simple.”

Purchasing carbon offsets can sometimes become more of a gesture than a solution because these offsets don’t physically reduce carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. They are not tangible measures to curb pollution as opposed to energy efficiency, renewable power sources, expanding forests, and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. 

An investigation by journalists at The Guardian in 2023 found that more than 90% of carbon credits sold by Verra, the world’s largest carbon offsetting certifier, did not reduce emissions.

Tatiana Lebreton of ecoexperts, clarified that “carbon offsetting relies on the assumption that an equivalent (or greater) amount of CO2 is being removed than the amount being produced. But in most cases, carbon offsetting projects overestimate their impact.” In other words, carbon offsets can’t accomplish their stated goals if the carbon emissions happen elsewhere anyway.

In his editorial for the New York Times, Dr. Zeke Hausfather, a climate researcher, said, “We have a saying in the climate science world: ‘Carbon is forever.’ Around 20 percent of the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere today will still be in the atmosphere many thousands of years from now. This means that to effectively undo emissions, the carbon we take out of the atmosphere needs to stay out.”

Planting Trees? A Great Start with a Very Long Lead Time

So what about the whole planting trees idea? It is a good idea. However, “A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises,” al Ghussain explained. “We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions. Even then, there is always the risk that these efforts will be wiped out by droughts, wildfires, tree diseases and deforestation.” 

Dr. Hausfather expanded on that sentiment, saying, “For carbon to be permanently removed by planting trees, forests would have to remain in place for thousands of years. On top of that, the trees would have to be planted on land that would have been forest-free for those same thousands of years had the trees not been planted.”

“Companies using trees to offset their emissions often sign a 40-year contract,” he continued. “But the companies selling and buying carbon credits may not be around in 40 years. There is a real risk that no one will be left holding the bag if tree plantations are clear-cut for development, go up in flames or are devoured by mountain pine beetles a few decades hence. In short, the timelines over which carbon removal needs to occur are fundamentally inconsistent with the planning horizons of private companies today.”

To truly remove carbon emissions means just that: removing the sources of carbon emissions and replacing them with sustainable, renewable alternatives. Yet there’s no simple solution before us given the ideological divides on the matter and the inevitable disruption that would come with implementing those solutions, even though they will create millions of new jobs and protect the planet. Which brings me back around to the RTO debate. Tree planting sounds idyllic and carbon offsets sound committed, but we know they won’t really cut down on emissions. Reducing the daily commutes of our workers, on the other hand, can directly and physically contribute to curbing pollution.

Simple Steps for Productive Hybrid and Remote Work

There’s been enough data out there over the past few years to support the benefits, both in terms of costs and productivity, of remote or hybrid working arrangements. In terms of sustainability, they also go a long way in demonstrating a dedicated effort to reduce greenhouse gasses and reliance on pollutants. Even better, there are simple steps any organization can take to develop a thriving and high performing workforce of talent who aren’t necessarily driving to your building every day. 

Assess Readiness and Set Clear Objectives

  • Evaluate the nature of your work and determine which tasks can be effectively performed remotely.
  • Set clear and realistic objectives for the remote or hybrid work model, ensuring alignment with overall business goals.

Invest in Technology

  • Provide employees with the necessary tools and technologies to support remote work seamlessly. This includes secure communication tools, project management software, and virtual collaboration platforms.
  • Ensure that employees have access to high-speed internet and are educated on using the tools effectively.

Establish Communication Protocols

  • Define clear communication channels and protocols to maintain effective collaboration. Utilize instant messaging, video conferencing, and project management tools.
  • Schedule regular virtual meetings for team updates, brainstorming sessions, and team-building activities.

Promote a Flexible Work Culture

  • Encourage a culture of trust and autonomy. Focus on outcomes and results rather than micromanaging daily activities.
  • Establish flexible work hours, allowing employees to balance work and personal commitments.

Provide Training and Support

  • Offer training sessions on remote work best practices, time management, and effective use of collaboration tools.
  • Establish a support system to address technical issues promptly and provide guidance on work-related challenges.

Implement Clear Policies and Guidelines

  • Develop comprehensive remote work policies covering expectations, performance metrics, and security protocols.
  • Clearly outline guidelines for data security, confidentiality, and compliance with regulations.

Encourage Regular Check-Ins

  • Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and team members to discuss progress, challenges, and career development.
  • Foster a sense of belonging and connection through virtual team-building activities.

Monitor and Evaluate Performance

  • Implement performance metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor productivity.
  • Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the remote or hybrid work model and make adjustments as needed.

Nothing is more important to the success of business, people, and the planet than the environment. Its collapse is our biggest existential threat. Much has to be done. And every small step that physically reduces emissions will matter. Sustainability can only increase in importance along with potential regulations moving forward. It’s essential that we consider it a factor in every business decision we plan to make. Revisiting sweeping and absolute return to office mandates, in favor of adopting flexibility, could be one of those decisions. 

Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash

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