What’s the Green Benefit of Telecommuting?

Many small businesses already participate in an easy and low-cost way to be environmentally friendlier: letting employees work from home – either every day or just on occasion. But how much of an impact does that really have?


You must account for several factors, but the heftiest savings comes from taking cars off the road. Let’s look at the numbers:

  • The average U.S. commute is about 32 miles round-trip, according to a 2005 poll by ABC News, analyzed by Gary Langer. That’s about 7,840 miles per year, assuming an employee works five days a week, 49 weeks per year (with 3 weeks of vacation).
  • If the employee drives a standard midsize vehicle — which typically emits around 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile — he or she would  emit 29 pounds of carbon per day commuting, adding up to a commuting footprint of about 7,100 pounds of CO2 per year.
  • Have five full-time employees? That’s nearly 35,500 pounds of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year – the equivalent of what an average American four-person household generates annually. (See CO2 emissions of various things here.)

However, the calculation isn’t quite so straightforward. When employees work from home, they generally use extra electricity and heating fuel to keep their home office lit and climate-controlled and to power their computers and other peripherals. (The extra emissions created by using a furnace to heat the home during the day, for instance, can nearly offset the CO2 savings from not commuting, a 2003 study found.) If you’re able to turn off the equipment and close the office because nobody’s there, however, the savings will be more significant.

Though the total green benefit may not be quite as powerful as it first seems, it can be quite impressive depending on the circumstances. And keep in mind there are other non-green benefits that come with telecommuting. For one, surveys repeatedly find that telecommuting make employees happier by providing them more work-life balance and less time on the road. Moreover, businesses can save money by reducing their operational costs. Studies have also shown telecommuting leads to higher employee productivity.

Do you or your employees often work from home? Do you think there’s a big environmental benefit?


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

6 Reactions
  1. Great points to consider when asking to telecommute. I also see savings for the company for less office space, electricity, heating, etc. with employees working from home.

  2. Yes lots of people I know work from home and they really enjoy it. As to the environment, people should look to green energy to reduce emissions. A change in living style is the key.

  3. I’m doing my part! And it really helps my sanity to stay out of traffic as well 😉

  4. Staying out of the traffic is nice, but there is something missed by not having co-workers about. I guess there is some give and take from doing business from home.

  5. Great analysis! I work for a company with 16 employees who are all telecommuters and we are very happy to be working from home and supporting environmental sustainability at the same time. At FlexJobs (www.flexjobs.com) we follow a set of guidelines to make sure that working from our home offices is actually green (to counter-act points like the 2003 study you cited).

    Here’s what we’re doing at home –
    – reducing or eliminating paper usage
    – increasing recycling efforts
    – using CFL or LED light bulbs and opting for natural light when possible
    – growing office plants to offset VOCs and CO2 emissions
    – turning off all electrical appliances (computers, lights, etc.) when not in use
    – using ceiling fans and natural ventilation instead of air conditioning
    – using recycled paper and toner cartridges when printing is necessary

    Small steps, but if everyone does their part, it winds up making a big difference!

  6. I have telecommuted full-time for a little more than five years. I have direct reports in San Francisco and New York whom I see maybe twice year. My wife also telecommutes. In 2008 we had solar panels installed on the roof of our home. Despite having computers, household appliances and other devices running most hours of the night and day, we have been a net producer of power to date. Given our age, our life expectancy about matches that of the panels, meaning we hope never to pay an electrical bill again.