In touting the benefits of distributed models of work, which I do often, there's a temptation to make the point that not having an office building and the energy-intensive practices that go with it (commuting, for example) must translate to a lower overall carbon footprint for distributed organizations.

While I think a lower carbon footprint is a possible benefit of distributed work, and one very much worth pursuing, it should not be taken as a given.

In fact, my experiences with distributed work (and in the tech world particularly) indicate that there are many, many energy-intensive practices to be considered, including:

  • The energy required to light, heat and cool residences with home offices that might otherwise go unoccupied during the day. I imagine temperature control in cavernous co-working spaces is also energy-intensive.
  • The computing power, equipment and energy usage at the growing number of data centers that support the many online services created and used by distributed workers (from collaborative office suites to audio/videoconferencing tools to Slack-bot cottage industry startups and more).
  • Any additional tendencies for distributed workers to have supplies and equipment shipped to them individually on a regular basis, compared to bulk buying or centralized shipping to an office. (Amazon next-day delivery is killing people.)
  • The materials, production processes and energy usage of laptops, phones and other devices that facilitate working from anywhere. Yes, there might be similar energy usage in an office environment, but whereas a physically central org might have an IT staff to repair/refurbish those items, with distributed that all mostly happens via shipping and may be less likely to facilitate re-using and recycling older devices.
  • Air travel and related energy usage to enable in-person meetups of distributed workers.

The last one feels important to dwell on for a moment.

Aircraft usage and flying account for a growing percentage of the climate change impact of human activity, some estimate 4 to 9 percent. "Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year," says the New York Times, citing the EPA.

So from an energy usage perspective, "I don't commute to an office anymore" starts to feel like a bit less to celebrate if at the same time one is flying around to meetups or conferences several times per year instead. More so if your office might have been a reasonable walk or bike ride away.

The hard thing of course, is that for many people, flying around to meetups and conferences is quite fun. For many distributed workers I know, being relatively isolated in their daily work lives is offset by looking forward to those in-person experiences with colleagues and coworkers. I know that's true for me personally and for some people, it's essential to the distributed work equation; they simply wouldn't do it without that part.

And, while commercial air travel may not always be the special privilege it once was, I think there's still a certain cultural phenomenon where one can quickly start to feel important and part of something exciting if part of your job is to jump on a plane and go other places to get your work done. Again, I know for me personally, world travel has been a great perk of distributed work.

(To be clear, I write about this as an ongoing contributor to this problem, where 2019 will have found me flying not only to several work-related events and meetups around the country, but also taking two international trips for personal purposes. My contributions to climate change via air travel are very high this year!)

When I discuss these challenges with other distributed colleagues (both at my own employer and beyond), often at in-person events we've flown to attend hashtag irony, there's usually at least some kind of acknowledgement that this is an issue. Some folks see it as pretty critical to address if we're to feel good about having any kind of sustainable (in the environmental sense) business model. Others see it as one of the many challenges of modern society, but perhaps not particularly high on the list of responsibilities for any one organization to address. And there's every viewpoint in between. Like melting glaciers, world hunger and plastic pollution in the oceans, everyone wants to see less of it, but no one quite knows what changes to make in their daily lives to get there, or has the means/privilege/support to spend time on that.

So, what can distributed workers and organizations do?

I'm not going to pretend I have solutions, but I have suggestions that I would be glad for you to comment on or build on:

  1. We have to incorporate the implications of air travel and other energy-intensive activities into the conversation about the benefits and challenges of distributed work. It has to be out front with all the other things that make this new model fascinating and worth talking about. We have to be transparent about it and measure it, and try to take action based on those measurements.
  2. Related, participate in studies and surveys about these challenges. Scientists can and will study this so we have some more real data to work with; the least we can do is make sure their data includes our realities.
  3. The best distributed work models I've seen are the ones that have innovated on or, dare I say, disrupted traditional ways of thinking about how work gets done. We are already doing communication, productivity, org  charts, hiring bias, performance measurement and software development differently, so why can't we do human connectivity differently too? I know that there's not currently any complete substitute for sitting across from someone in person...but most people would have said the same thing 20 years ago about the necessity of everyone working in an office together. Let's take that challenge on.
  4. For some, one key suggestion is simple: fly less or stop flying for distributed work. If you're in a position to guide policy around your distributed organization's use of air travel, try to place the decision to have people travel in the larger context of our climate crisis and see how that might shape new criteria for if and when those trips happen.
  5. Experiment: try online-only meetups , spend the air travel funds on Zoom room equipment, provide incentives for travel reduction, don't schedule any air travel for a quarter and seeing what that means for the business, insist on giving a conference talk via video link, and so on. Blog publicly about how you do it, what you observe, and tips for others doing the same. Build a base of knowledge and creativity for the rest of us to learn from.

I know, it's not a very satisfying list.

I offer it up not because I think it's anything that hasn't been said before or because it's a particularly inspiring call to action. I offer it up mostly because it's something I want to work on, think about, figure out...and I need a reminder. I want to avoid complacency, or at least more complacency than I've already accepted.

It's hard to find a sense of immediacy in the realm of climate crisis response. Perhaps air travel and energy usage in distributed orgs is another area where a future generation will look back in horror at all of our missed opportunities to be better, while we would just say we did the best we could. But my hope is that this is an area where distributed work pioneers have yet to offer our best ideas, and that good things are still ahead.

One thought on “Air travel and the carbon footprint of distributed work

  1. Thank you, Chris. This is excellent. I appreciate the info you have shared here -- both known facts and areas that need additional facts and data collection. Yes, may your writing serve as a reminder to you and inspiration to others to keep asking the questions and seeking answers.

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