I'm looking for sources that can give some reasoned arguments about Telecommuting in sustainablity terms - how much of an energy costs in there to working at home compared with commuting X miles in Y minutes by Z mode of transportation. Particularly interested in references to relatively large studies and an acknowledgement of the cost of perhaps not been as effective a worker when away from the office.

  • 1
    Costs for not being effective are expressed in economic terms while "sustainability concerns" for transport are expressed in environmental terms. There is no common basis for comparison.
    – Stockfisch
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 14:23
  • 2
    This question seems too broad as too many factors are involved and essential variables are left being undeclared (mode of transport, distance).
    – Stockfisch
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 14:39
  • 3
    @boo2060 I take your points, but there are studies on this very question, so I'll leave it for now, and let the community decide
    – 410 gone
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 18:07
  • Related: Is working from home a more sustainable choice?
    – LShaver
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 1:27

4 Answers 4


Ignoring the aspect of how effective a person works at home compared to their working place your question essentially boils down to:

Are the conditions at my working place (basically all facilities you use there; including work and non work related actions) plus the transport to get there more environmentally harmful than the conditions at home?

There are hundreds of factors involved then - presuming that you refer to office environments you need certain hardware to perform your tasks. This hardware can be shared at work while at home you have to have your own installment. But it also includes issues about basic human needs - can these be more sustainable fulfilled at your working place or at home?

Given the generally large energy consumption of transportation (again, it depends a lot what mode of transport you choose), that is likely to exceed the energy costs of your daily working life, my advice is: stay home. :)

  • But working at home, how much of the hardware can be used for other things and merely repurposed? I think that has to fit into the equation too. Commented May 3, 2013 at 2:59
  • Sure, and a lot more things that need to be defined. And are we talking about carbon footprint, waster consumption, energy demand ..?
    – Stockfisch
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 11:00

In general, commuting is not more sustainable than working home or at least near (within a walk radius) home. But there are many cases where it's the better solution:

  • having no job might be better than commuting from pure sustainability perspective, but it's clearly not acceptable

  • not everyone can work at home. Some proffesions simply disallow it, and sometimes the family is a distraction so strong that the work is much less efficient at home than almost anywhere else

  • it might be more sustainable to live with your family on countryside (where the rest of your family and you in your free time can engage in permacultural gardening and other sustainability-friendly activities) and commute than to live in a city

  • having another place to live and seeing your family during the weekends only is not only bad for relationships in your family, but is also likely to be less sustainable than telecommuting

To conclude, in general commuting is bad, but in practice the question "to commute or not to commute?" must be solved on "case to case" basis and is quite complex.


It's notable that the name "Cisco" seems to appear a lot in the literature.

Mobile Work Exchange site - Teleworking evangelists and aficionados.
Much material related to sustainability and advantages of Telework.

Mobile Work Exchange

  • Report on "The Telework Revolution: Bringing Theory to Practice 3rd Annual Telework Week Report; 2013 Impact and Year-over-Year Benchmarks" . TELEWORK WEEK STUDY REPORT DOWNLOAD

They say:

  • On April 30, Mobile Work Exchange, Cisco, and Citrix announced the results of Telework Week 2013, an effort that encouraged employees to telework during the week of March 4-8, 2013. The study finds that Telework Week 2013 participants saved:

    • A total of 15.1 million miles of commuting;
    • Gained back 665,936 hours;
    • Spared 7,892 tons of pollutants;
    • And collectively saved $5.6 million in commuting costs

    • Research reports

Telework Productivity and Wellbeing Project

This is in its infant stages but is liable to be of interest.

  • Australasian study - February 2013 announcement - just getting under way. Sustainability not addressed in this summary, but is almost invariably an indivisible part of the ethos of teleworking.

They say:

  • An increasing number of workplaces are allowing employees to work remotely (teleworking) but very little is known about the practice in Australasia. A new project involving AUT researchers aims to learn more.

    Organisations in New Zealand and Australia that use teleworking arrangements, either formally or informally, are being asked to come forward for the Telework Productivity and Wellbeing Project.

    The project is a collaboration between

    • AUT’s New Zealand Work Research Institute;
    • University of Melbourne’s Institute for Broadband Enabled Society
    • and Cisco New Zealand.

Deloiite 'Virtual Work' Report

The term "sustainability' is hardly used, but they address the issues we..

  • They note: Several trends have emerged that are expected to continue to drive the adoption of alternative and virtual work practices over the next few years.

    First, while cost reductions and operational improvement pressures are expected to continue in the short term, the imperative for growth is likely to soon replace cost as a driver, as businesses move from a recessionary to a recovering economy. This transition, may surprise many companies waiting in the wings for signs of life in the global economy.

    Second, an increasingly global workforce may require a strategic approach to mobility and cross-border/cross-functional collaboration. This includes the provision of work arrangement options that engage employees across all demographics, with most employees expecting their employer to offer them more tools, flexibility, and choice. Further, multiple generations in the workplace are already causing friction as work styles shift from status quo to status carpe diem. As younger colleagues step up into management roles, they may likely make decisions that include the use of virtual work practices for their teams.


  • Usefulness and relevance varies.

How Telecommuting Lets Workers Mobilize for Sustainability

US Government fuel economy site

AT&T sustainability report with Telecommuting reference

USCF sustainability page with links to telecommuting guidelines

Syracuse university sustainability & telecommuting page

Cornell - sadly bare page!!!

THE TELEWORKER - overview re sustainability & other sectors

UN, global e-sustainability reprot {dated}


... some reasoned arguments about Telecommuting in sustainablity terms - how much of an energy costs in there to working at home compared with commuting X miles in Y minutes by Z mode of transportation.

by commenting on factors involved:

For some jobs it just doesn't work, of course. For example, a commercial cleaner is never going to "work from home".

I have largely here just referred to "cost" rather than energy cost except in a few specific cases. While energy cost percentage of a given item or service varies with circumstance, in an open market where other factors have not been purposefully brought to bear (directed taxes and duties, marketing 'spin', cartels,...) , energy cost is a significant and very roughly constant proportion of total cost.
[eg Oil costs nothing when it is in the ground. The major part of its market cost is the cost of exploration, field development, extraction and transportation. These in turn can be broken down into components where energy cost ends up playing a major part. And ultimately you get back to the cost of oil as the main factor in the cost of oil :-).
The price of diamonds and the cost of diamonds are essentially unrelated.
The cost of Nike products includes a large "Just do it" factor.]

Starting with just "cost" is often an OK enough proxy for energy costs while a first impression is gained of what other factors are involved. This can then be refined as required.

It depends on distance involved.
Take the two extremes and you get different answers, indicating that there is a crossover point at some stage.

  • At one extreme, if your home was "just around the corner" from work premises then duplication of facilities would be liable to be inefficient.

  • At the other extreme, once work-location and company physical location are separated, you can communicate across a city or across the world just as easily.

  • But as distance rises the cost and time for sending physical objects varies, so the importance and frequency of doing this affects the crossover point.

  • Various factors discussed below modify where this crossover point will be.

How much distance matters depends on job type and how well you can operate at a large distance. Distance can increase efficiency of telecommuting because of the cost savings of you not having to travel, and increase the cost on the occasions when you do have to travel. Within a city or regional area factors include type of job, traffic densities, distance between the locations, quality of transport infrastructure and more. It is reasonably common in Asia for people to travel for 2 or more hours per day in each direction, but many take far less than this. I do not know the expectations in say the US or Europe but trip times of half an hour to one hour + would be usual here (Auckland, New Zealand's largest city) and two hours would be unusual but not unknown.

If you have to send papers or equipment or samples or work output then distance and time taken rise in 'steps'. Sending materiel across a city takes hours to a day by courier. Sending by post often next day or two days. Shorter times cost more as distance rises ("1 hour" couriers etc). In most 'developed countries' across a country sending by courier takes maybe a day or two, possibly three (depends on local factors). Sending small items (up to 10 or 20 kg say*) or papers across the world takes 3 days if you are happy to pay between an hour and a day of equivalent salary (depending on what your local earning levels are) or weeks to many weeks at lower but non-trivial cost.

If your job depends only on "communications" and you seldom or never need to send physical objects then it's more efficient to tele-commute in extreme cases.

To complicate the mix throw in worker trustability, ability to supervise and ability to obtain assistance or guidance when needed. Ability tos share with others you are working with or for can be critically important or of minimal relevance depending on the job involved.

So while, as noted above , somewhere there will be a "crossover point" it is so influenced by the above factors and many more that a simple (or even quite complex) formula is only going to be a starting point, and a study is likely to be required in each case where factors differ markedly from others already in operation.

Two extreme examples:
In a recent TV program here the owner managers of a UK based company, who live in New Zealand (12,000 miles and about two days away) were discussing their customer helpline operation. The job requires "only" a 'telephone' connection and computer access.
Up until 7:59 pm each day, UK time, this is operated by UK company staff. At 8pm you will be answered by a company employee in New Zealand. The calls are not outsourced. The people who talk to customers are product experts and company employees. They have access to the same company computer databases and resources. Interestingly, while they are 12,000 miles away from the customers, in this instance they still work in an office in NZ, and not at their homes. On the one hand the company has its NZ employees "tele-commute" 12,000 miles, but have not taken the final step of allowing them to take the final step, even though technology would allow it.

I am close to but not quite at the extreme end. I sit at my desk or workshop in New Zealand. As required I work almost simultaneously at various places elsewhere on earth - at present in USA, Canada, Serbia and China as required. Nobody that I work for or with is in NZ with me. Commuting is fun enough, when I occasionally get to do it, but there is no daily "travelling to work". When you take the energy costs of travel plus a proportion of accommodation & other costs involved (to allow for their energy costs) it adds up to what would be a modest but significant transportation budget if I travelled within my own city. But the annual travel hours are significantly lower, even allowing for the duration of international travel. Occasionally samples and prototypes do have to be sent across the world (usually NZ-China) costing time and money. But, quite apart from the fact that it would be impossible to be in all the places I need to be if I did not work "remotely", the cost of 'working from home' is lower than it would be for me to work on the far side of my own city. I think it probable that by any metric that you choose, it is lower cost for me to "telecommute" than not to. I have not discussed the cost of work premises or equipment or the affects of tax concessions for 'home offices' etc as they further complicate what is essentially a very broad overview. .

  • Many major international courier companies offer "Jumbo" boxes with 10 kg or 20 kg maximum weight and "all you can fit in" volume constraint. These are often superbly cost effective if you need to send more than about 50% of their weight in the volume provided.
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    Please can you edit this so that it more explicitly answers the question? At the moment, this is a lot of discursive points around the issue; and although I can see you've put a lot of effort into it, it does not really answer the question. Note that the OP has explicitly asked for "references to relatively large studies"
    – 410 gone
    Commented May 4, 2013 at 8:04
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    @EnergyNumbers - First line: "This does not attempt to provide a formula but comments on factors involved." // Hopefully it widens mental filters that may otherwise give the impression that questions like this work well with formulaic approaches. There will be broad groups with a one-formula-describes-many solution, but many others where there won't. My input may assist in improving questioner perception. Or not. // If useful, then leave it for the downvoters who don't know the meaning of the word "useful". If it so offends popular taste as to be unuseful by all means burn, bash and bury. Commented May 4, 2013 at 14:15

This totally depends on

  1. the insulation of the home
  2. the heating method of the home, if heating is needed
  3. the length of commute
  4. the vehicle used for commuting

For example, a poorly insulated home in a cold climate can consume 250 kWh / square meter of living space per year. If working from home requires 10 more square meters of living space, that's 2500 kWh per year. Oil heating produces about 300 grams of CO2 per kWh of energy, so this would create 750 kg of CO2 emissions per year.

It is theoretically possible that you are comparing a short electric car trip (10km there and back) in a country with a clear electricity grid (sub-100g/kWh) with heating an old oil-heated building. In this case, the electric car could create only 41 kg of CO2 emissions whereas the said oil-heated building requires 750 kg of CO2 emissions.

However, I can in general say that this is a very extreme situation. In almost any case, it's far more environmentally friendly to work from home. For example, the 2500 kWh per year could with an air-to-water heat pump be produced with 1000 kWh of electricity, producing only 100 kg of CO2 emissions. In this case, the electric car would win but only because the distance to work is 5 km, and the distance back home is 5 km. Increase the distance to 12 km to work and 12 km back, and the emissions are equal.

It's also not fair to compare an old building with an electric car. Most people who can afford to buy electric cars can also afford to live in newer buildings where the insulation can halve the heating bill.

So, usually working from home wins, but not always. It especially wins if you can optimize your working area so that you use the same area for work and personal purposes, meaning no living space is wasted for a dedicate working area.

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