Air travel and the carbon footprint of distributed work

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.

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Sabbatical cometh

In a few weeks I'll be starting a three-month long sabbatical from my work at Automattic.

As a benefit provided by the company, it's pretty amazing. After every five years of employment, Automatticians are eligible to take a two or three month paid sabbatical to have a break from work, refresh and recharge. Several people (mostly used to academic versions of sabbatical) have understandably asked what expectations are placed on us during that time: research, writing, professional development? Nope, it's all about having a break.

For me personally it's a really neat opportunity, and one I haven't had before in this particular way. I started my first company when I was 19 and have pretty much been working full time ever since. Automattic has a generous and flexible time off policy but to have such a significant amount of time to pursue hobbies, personal projects and time with family and friends is really quite an amazing gift.

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Building momentum for your distributed work day

Imagine that you are about to go on stage to perform some amazing thing that you know how to do. You're waiting in the wings for your moment to shine, and you want to bring your very best to the experience.

But then also imagine that you spent the last several hours or even days in isolation. You haven't really talked to anyone or had much human interaction at all. No one has given you encouraging words or expressed excitement about what you're going to perform.

And then you find out that the time of your performance has not really been set or advertised. There will be an audience but they will be coming and going from the auditorium where you're performing, and they may or may not be paying attention to you. When you do the thing you're best at, someone may or may not notice. Oh and the stage is actually going to be a small, dark closet.

Now go out there and be awesome? Umm....

It's a silly scenario, but for some people who work in a distributed environment, especially one where a lot of collaboration happens asynchronously across individual schedules and time zones, this is what the beginning of our work day can feel like: quiet, slow, isolated.

In a traditional office setting where workers tend to arrive, collaborate and leave on roughly the same schedule, the energy and pace of work can come from the environment itself. But for distributed workers, even when there is actually a lot going on in the organization we're working with, it can be a challenge to build momentum at the start of our days. Sometimes the work itself is enough to generate that energy, but sometimes we need help getting into the right mental space for high productivity.

So how can you build that momentum if it's not coming from your physical work environment? Here are a couple of things that I've seen work well:

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Digital receipts for paperless living

In trying to live a relatively paperless lifestyle, I notice what options stores and restaurants offer for providing electronic receipts instead of paper ones.

My favorite kind is where you use a credit card or mobile payment method that some lower level of infrastructure already knows about and you automatically get an email receipt without further prompting. Square has a great implementation of this.

Slightly less awesome but still great is the version where you use a digital payment method and then have to enter your email address manually, even if you've used the same payment and receipt delivery method at the same location before (I'm looking at you, most American chain restaurants that have the little mini-computer waiting at the booth when people sit down). A bit annoying, but still paperless.

Then there's everywhere else where printing a receipt is probably the only option. Especially at the grocery store, where the receipt and personalized coupons are several miles long, requiring their own bag to carry out. And look, there I am a few days later, awkwardly holding a crumpled piece of paper up next to the networked super-computer on my desk, manually typing in some details that some other networked computer somewhere else already knows about.

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Power in a distributed org

It's striking to see the differences in where power gathers in a distributed organization, compared to where that happens in a more traditional office setting.

When people come together in a physical space there is a lot of time and energy spent on appearance. The work isn't just about "what are we doing" but also "how do we look and how do people perceive us while we're doing what we do."

When people come together to work in a virtual/online space, the focus shifts.

In an office setting, I see power and influence gather around...

  • The person with the newest, coolest and/or most expensive clothing
  • The person with the larger corner office
  • The person with the most assistants
  • The person with the most impressive sounding title
  • The person with the closest parking space
  • The oldest, richest, whitest males
  • The person who's allowed to create or interrupt meetings
  • The person with the most impressive social and public-speaking skills
  • The person who uses their power to get what they want

In a distributed organization, I see power and influence gather around...

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