Hybrid working may not be beneficial for the environment, study finds

Research shows remote workers travel a greater distance per week than office workers and are more likely to take a greater number of non-work trips

Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing/Getty Image

A permanent post-pandemic switch to hybrid working may not bring as many environmental benefits as first thought, a University of Sussex Business School study has found.

The study, which looked at data on 269,000 individuals in England over the period 2005 to 2019, before the pandemic, found that while remote workers tended to take fewer trips, they still travelled a greater distance each week than office workers.

It found that on average, those working from home at least three times a week lived on average 7.6 miles further from their place of work than non-remote workers.

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Meanwhile, those working from home once or twice a week lived on average 4.2 miles further from their place of work than those who worked in the office full time.

Steven Sorrell, professor of energy policy in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, said that remote working could have “unintended consequences” which might offset any reduction in carbon emissions.

“If you only commute a couple of days a week, you may choose to live further from your workplace. And if you work at home during the day, you may choose to take additional trips – perhaps to pick up some shopping or simply to get out of the house,” he explained.

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The research, which looked at around 3.6 million trips, found that the total amount of weekly travel was greater in households where at least one family member was working remotely.

In total, households with remote workers travelled around 22 miles further each week than households with no remote workers. However, this travel was mainly made up from public transport rather than by cars. This may have been due to the fact that the presence of remote workers in a household was likely to encourage other household members to travel more.

The study also revealed that remote workers took around 8 per cent more non-work related trips each week, with infrequent remote workers travelling 9 miles further on average than office-based workers.

While the largest proportion of these trips were by public transport, remote workers as a whole took 7 per cent more trips by car for non-work purposes, and irregular remote workers travelled an average of 4.4 miles further by car per week.

“A combination of residential relocation, induced non-work travel and the influence on the travel patterns of other household members offset the benefits of fewer commutes,” said Bernardo Caldarola, lead author of the study and also a professor at the Science Policy Research Unit, who suggested changes to public policy could “encourage more sustainable residential and travel patterns” among remote workers.

But, Caldarola added, while the study suggested a link, a causal relationship between remote working and travel patterns had not been established, and more research was needed to explore the issue.