Working from home may save little or no energy in the long term, especially if the post-pandemic business world evolves toward part-time telecommuting, according to a new review of 39 studies.

The review was accepted for publication in April by the journal Environmental Research Letters and made available online.

Some of the studies found that working from home reduced energy use as much as 80%, primarily because of less commuting and less heating, cooling, and lighting of office buildings.

However, "the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings," said Victor Court, an author of the new paper and an assistant professor at the Center for Energy Economics and Management at the IFP School (a graduate engineering school) in France.

"Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited, with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption."

The research indicated that only full-time telecommuting by a majority of office staff would significantly reduce energy costs. It found several reasons why working from home could actually increase energy use:

  • Part-time telecommuting might encourage workers to live farther from the office, so they would travel longer distances when they did physically commute.
  • Time saved by not commuting potentially means more time for personal trips.
  • Money saved by not commuting might be spent on goods, services, and activities that carry large carbon footprints.
  • Telecommuters might look for excuses to take extra trips just to feel less isolated.
  • If cars are freed from daily commuting use, other household members might drive them for more miles per day than the commute required.

"While the lockdown has clearly reduced energy consumption, only some of those savings will be achieved in more normal patterns of teleworking," said Steven Sorrell, another study author and a professor of energy policy at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School in the UK.

"To assess whether teleworking is really sustainable, we need to look beyond the direct impact on commuting and investigate how it changes a whole range of daily activities."