New research results raise doubts about the ecological advantages of hybrid working

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A permanent post-pandemic shift to hybrid working can do little to reduce carbon emissions as the majority of teleworkers travel further each week than their in-office counterparts, new research from the University of Sussex Business School shows.

The newly released study finds that before the pandemic, most teleworkers in England traveled further each week than office workers – despite traveling less. This was partly because teleworkers tended to live farther from work than non-teleworkers and therefore commuted longer, albeit less frequently. Additionally, telecommuters travel more on the days they work from home — for example, additional trips to shops and cafes.

The researchers also found that total weekly trips were greater in households where at least one member worked remotely, suggesting that the presence of remote workers in a home causes their roommates and family members to travel more.

The study published in the journal Transport Research Part A, notes that in the 15 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing trend toward remote working had a negligible impact on travel emissions. While regular teleworkers traveled slightly less than non-teleworkers, irregular teleworkers traveled significantly more.

Steven Sorrell, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School and Co-Director of the Center for Research into Energy Demand Solutions’ Digital Society theme, said:

“Our study found that remote work can have unintended consequences that offset the potential travel and carbon savings. If you only commute a few days a week, you can choose to live further away from your job. And if you work from home during the day, you can make extra trips – maybe to do some shopping or just get out of the house. We need to consider these possibilities when estimating the contribution of remote work to carbon targets.”

The study used data from the English National Travel Survey to estimate the impact of teleworking on the travel behavior of English households between 2005 and 2019, and analyzed information on around 3.6 million trips from around 269,000 people.

The researchers compared the number of trips and distance traveled by teleworkers each week to the number of trips and distance traveled by non-teleworkers, controlling for a range of socioeconomic, demographic and regional variables.

Using these controls, the researchers found that people who worked from home three or more times a week lived an average of 4.2 miles further from their workplace than office workers, while those who worked from home once or twice a week from worked, an average of 7.6 km lived on.

Those who work from home once or twice a week commuted 14.9% fewer commutes, but commuted 10.9% more (+8 miles) each week than commuters who commuted to work every day. Those who spend most of their week working from home made 25.3% fewer trips and drove 20% fewer distances (-14.69 miles). However, since the first group outnumbered the second group by about four to one, the majority of the teleworkers traveled further each week than the non-teleworkers during this period.

Additionally, the researchers found that teleworkers took about 8% more trips outside of work each week, with infrequent teleworkers driving 12.9% further (+9 miles) than non-teleworkers. While proportionately more of these additional trips were made using public transit and active transit; All teleworkers made around 7% more car journeys outside of work, and irregular teleworkers made 8% more car journeys (+4.4 miles). These additional non-work trips further offset the travel savings from fewer commutes.

Overall, households with teleworkers traveled 15.9% more each week (+22 miles) than households without teleworkers, although more of these additional journeys were made on public transport (+46.5%, ie +8.6 miles) than on public transport Car (+7.3%, ie +8.4 miles).

Bernardo Caldarola of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School and lead author of the study said:

“Overall, our study results suggest that for the majority of teleworkers in England, a combination of relocation, induced non-working travel and influencing the travel behavior of other household members outweighs the benefits of reduced commuting.

“Although we have found significant associations between teleworking and travel patterns, we have not demonstrated a causal relationship. The differences in travel patterns between teleworkers and non-teleworkers may be due to unobserved differences between the two groups rather than teleworking per se. More research is needed to examine this issue.

“The results we have observed are not inevitable. Public policies can encourage more sustainable living and travel patterns, and these in turn can enable remote working to make a greater contribution to reducing emissions. However, this will not happen on its own – it needs to be actively encouraged.”

Quitting the daily commute to work may not lower energy use as much as one might hope

More information:
Bernardo Caldarola et al., Are Teleworkers Traveling Less? Evidence from the English National Travel Survey, Transport Research Part A: Policy and Practice (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.tra.2022.03.026

Provided by the University of Sussex

citation: New research casts doubt on environmental benefits of hybrid work (2022 April 7), retrieved April 7, 2022 from

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