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What if remote work is our best hope to stop climate catastrophe?

Illustration by Calvin Sprague
By Citrix x Quartz Creative
Published Last updated on

Widespread remote work has always felt just a few years away—something you could see happening, but maybe not at your workplace. 

Ah, pre-pandemic innocence. Were we ever so young? 

Within a matter of weeks, days for some, a flood of companies suddenly needed to operate without an office. One study by Global Workplace Analytics estimated that remote workers before the Covid-19 pandemic accounted for less than 4% of the US workforce. After the outbreak, that shot up to 56% of the US’ 135 million workers—a 14x increase within a single quarter.

It turns out that many people can still do their jobs well from home. Citrix’s remote work study conducted in August of 2019 found that of those who had the option to work remotely, 86% took advantage of it. In their recent report, Work 2035: How people and technology will pioneer new ways of working, 58% of leaders say they’re likely to reduce office space after the pandemic. And additional research from Citrix and Quartz Creative shows that even when offices can open back up, around one third of professionals predict up to 75% of the workforce might go fully remote in the next 15 years. 

But remote work isn’t just a stopgap measure to keep everyone safe during a global pandemic. It’s crucial to our survival as a species. If you’re wondering how typing on your bed in sweatpants for multiple hours a day can save the planet, stay with us.

By now we all know there’s no going back to “normal”. But we’re at a unique moment in time where we can decide what normal life should look like in the future. With everything turned on its head, now is the precise moment to make big societal changes and address the single greatest threat to humanity—climate change. With 2020 being the hottest year on record, it can’t be repeated enough: Rising sea levels and severe weather patterns will destabilize nations and the entire global economy, and it’s going to take collective action on a global scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the warming of our planet.

Home, work

An important first step in all of this is figuring out how to cut down on something most of us do every single day: commute. According to the EPA, driving to and from work accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the US at 28%. If more people are working from home, and less are commuting, then you’ve taken a massive chunk out of our existing emissions. 

The impact remote work has on emissions is so pronounced that the US Energy Information Administration predicts that 2020 will see a 7.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions due to people driving less. To put that number in perspective, 2019 only saw a 2.8% reduction in emissions. The pandemic’s shift towards remote work more than doubled US emissions reduction. 

The impact remote work has on emissions is so pronounced that the US Energy Information Administration predicts that 2020 will see a 7.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions due to people driving less.

With more people working from home, it’s also possible to cut down on commercial sources of electricity. Since the beginning of the pandemic in the US, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago has tracked nationwide electricity usage. According to their data, between April and May, after a number of states issued stay-at-home orders, electricity consumption dropped an average of 6-7% over that two-month period compared to pre-pandemic levels. While the Energy Policy Institute noted that there was an increase in residential power, they attributed this overall dip to a “very substantial” drop in commercial and industrial sectors.

Combating climate change requires an entire reworking and reimagining of how society operates. And you can split the fight into two distinct halves: figuring out how to transition the global economy off fossil fuels and understanding how to more efficiently use the energy we generate. We humans will have to figure the latter on our own, but AI, specifically machine learning, is uniquely qualified to tackle the first. 

Let’s look at one simple inefficiency in our energy use. A recent study found that British tea drinkers heat up twice the amount of water they actually need, boiling 18.5 million gallons of unnecessary water per day. Sure, there could be a public education campaign around boiling less water, but humans are stubborn. We forget, or we just don’t pay attention. A simple machine learning algorithm found in a “smart kettle” could learn a person’s tea consumption habits and then let the user know when they’ve added enough water, completely removing the burden on us of efficiently boiling water. 

Our energy inefficiencies aren’t just limited to making tea, of course. One 2018 report released by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimated that 66% of all energy generated in the US is “rejected”—lost through waste heat in the generation process. So, when it comes to powering our modern economy, burning fossil fuels is wildly inefficient. That’s a problem almost purpose-built for AI to solve.

In the summer of 2019, a number of climate scientists, AI academics, and industry members formed Climate Change AI, a volunteer group exploring how machine learning could combat climate change. They listed dozens of ways in which AI could be used to find efficiencies in energy generation, storage, and usage. It is an eye-opening document and a testament to the power of AI in the fight against climate catastrophe.  

Here’s a scenario, drawing from the various applications, in which AI could make a meaningful improvement in how we generate, store and consume energy. With better, more powerful machine learning systems, we can improve forecast models and better predict the weather. If we can better predict what the weather is going to be ahead of time, then we can better predict how much electricity we’ll need in a given day. If we know how much electricity we’ll need then we can more efficiently generate and store it when we don’t need it, and then use it when we do. In other words, AI allows us to better predict the future, thus making it easier to rely on more sustainable, but intermittent, energy generation sources like wind and solar power while reducing our reliance on coal and gas-powered generators.

And this is already being put into practice. Last year, Google used its DeepMind AI to predict the future output of a wind turbine farm, which helped them make more accurate energy generation commitments. The ability to better predict how much energy a wind farm will generate 36 hours in advance increased the value of wind power by 20%, Google estimated.

Just as AI is used to augment our existing power grid to run smarter and more efficiently, AI in the workplace could offer similar benefits for companies using the analytical power of machine learning to find hidden efficiencies and reduce their own energy consumption.   

While our current reality of remote work is one of necessity, the future of remote work could be one of convenience. AI could make remote work so seamless and enjoyable, that it makes more sense to just stay at home than to ever go back to the office. In fact, it’s a future most workers are already contemplating.

How do we make remote work work today?

Many remote workers report feeling isolated and lonely. While AI can help make jobs easier and more productive, it’s up to employees and leaders to rethink how office culture works in a world in which the office no longer exists. 

Virtual happy hours or a dedicated messaging channel for sharing pics of your #pets may have gotten you this far, but it’s worth revisiting the basics of how workplace culture works outlined in our Workplace Experience course series. (If you haven’t had a chance to tap through them, now is about as good a time as any. They’re fun and informative! We promise.)

AI could make remote work so seamless and enjoyable, that it makes more sense to just stay at home than to ever go back to the office.

In WX 104, we discussed how culture is built from the ground-up. You can’t “create” a remote work culture, but you can help it grow. Socializing may feel awkward or forced right now, but that’s okay! It’s worth acknowledging. There’s relief in recognizing that we’re all just trying to figure this out. People will naturally learn how to make video calls a welcome place to interact with coworkers, it’s just going to take a little time.

This shift towards more remote work has also led to a shift towards relying more on technology to stay connected. And while it’s great that we’re all able to collaborate with coworkers through chat apps and video calls, these same technologies, if overused, can lead to increased burnout. 

And in WX 102, we discussed a phenomenon known Citrix refers to as “app sprawl” in which employees find themselves switching between more and more apps to get their work done. In the course, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried suggested that remote work should come with an inherent trust in employees to set their own hours and get their work done, and without the expectation that everyone needs to keep their eyes glued to their inboxes, chat apps, and calendars. He calls this the “joy of missing out” or JOMO. It sounds backwards, but according to Fried, the key to a happier, more engaged workforce is one that’s able to disconnect on their own terms.

Paradoxically, technology can help with this. According to Citrix’s Work 2035 report, 64% of professionals believe workers will demand personal tech to enable seamless flexible or remote working. Remote work gives employees more autonomy around their day, and machine learning is the perfect candidate for figuring out how everyone works differently. An AI assistant could determine algorithmically the best time for workers to focus on a certain project, answer emails, learn new skills, or pinpoint the best time for weekly meetings. 

In fact, AI assistants could make remote work not only the more sustainable option, but one that’s better than working in a traditional office. 

There is an after to all the *gestures wildly* this. There are also silver linings: the upheaval of so many norms—both in and out of the workplace—could lead to us imagining and realizing a world that is better than the one we had. One where work is more personalized to each employee, more sustainable for the environment, and more adaptable to a changing world. 

So yes, in some small way working from your couch surrounded by dirty coffee mugs is indeed helping to move us toward a future without climate change. Keep up the great work.

What do you think?

Don’t forget to tell us what you think on social media with #Work2035.

Would you like to know more?

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote work, there has been a dearth of thoughts and perspectives coming out in recent months about the future of working from home. Here are a few good starting points.

This article was produced on behalf of Citrix by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff. Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of Citrix or Citrix products.

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