How to measure the carbon footprint of a remote team

Written by Tom Greenwood - July 21, 2021

Our friend Mike Gifford from Civic Actions recently asked on the Climate Action Tech Slack group:

How do you best measure the CO2 of a distributed team? If everyone is working from home, how to best measure an organization’s Scope 1 & 2 emissions?

At Wholegrain Digital we have been a semi-remote team for over a decade and trying to account for our carbon footprint for just as long, so I volunteered to share my thoughts on this topic by email (as it was too long for a Slack message). Requests then started coming in from more and more people to receive a copy of the email. So, by popular demand, here it is on the blog for all to see!

Some background

I’m going to caveat everything below by saying that by no means have we perfected this, and this article is simply an overview of where we have got to.

Our company is based in a shared space in London and even before the pandemic, we all worked at least some of our time at home. For most of the past year it was almost 100% from home. Both of these factors mean that we don’t have the opportunity to read our energy usage straight from a company utility bill for the company, which makes things a little tricky. We have found some workarounds though, as explained below.

Co-working energy and emissions

For the energy used in our co-working space, we work with the space managers to get top level energy data (electricity and natural gas) for the whole space. They also provide us with some top level occupancy data. We know how many days on average each team member works at the office, so we can then work out our proportion of usage of the overall workspace, and in turn apply that percentage to the energy data for the whole space to find out how much electricity and gas we used.

In our previous workspace, the property managers would not provide us the energy data, but they did have some standard data online for average energy (electricity and gas) per square meter of the office buildings they managed in London. We therefore used this data and worked out an equivalent floor area that our team used in the building.

In addition to estimating the energy consumption for the co-working space, we also ask the property managers to confirm in writing whether the electricity is supplied on a renewable energy tariff so that we can factor this in to the emissions calculations. Sometimes they have even shown us the energy contract which is great.

Home working energy and emissions

To calculate the carbon emissions of people working from home, we do an annual staff survey where we ask our team to input their total electricity and natural gas usage for their home for the past year. We also ask them to confirm if they have a renewable energy tariff, which ties in with our staff incentive to switch to green energy.

The survey is optional as we cannot force people to provide their home energy data, but most team members do. For those who do not, we simply use an average figure to represent them.

We then apply a percentage to their total energy usage to represent the energy that applies to their work.
This can be done in a number of ways:

  • A generic percentage
  • The percentage of floor area dedicated to their working space
  • The percentage of time that they are working while at home versus not working (e.g. 7.5 hrs x 5 days/week – holidays)
  • Estimate the increase in energy consumption compared to if they did not work at home

The last one is really hard and we gave up on that a while back. I personally like the time based approach but my conversations with other companies suggest that the UK trend is towards a generic percentage. There are pros and cons with all options, so have a think about what you feel is most appropriate.

Emissions from commuting to work

We factor in the energy and emissions from travel, including commuting to and from the office. I know that some companies consider staff commuting outside of their emissions boundaries, but the fact that people are commuting to work makes me feel that this is absolutely part of the organisations emissions and responsibility.

Again, we gather data for commuting via an annual team survey to find out each persons travel patterns. If data is missing for anyone, then we guess their travel patterns because we know what town they live in, how often they come to the office and have a fairly good idea of their referred mode of transport. For other business travel we use the data from travel expense claims for train and car travel.

Digital emissions

I’ve written an article about how lockdown impacted our team emissions through reduced travel and increased digital usage. You could use the info in this article to calculate more general digital emissions for all staff members based on data usage. Again, this could be done by surveying the team and finding out their average bandwidth usage on their home and mobile bills, and then estimating a portion of that for work.

There’s a lot of work to be done to make these calculations a lot more accurate. As a team passionate about digital sustainability, we are continuing to dive into this research and I think it’s safe to say that the numbers in the article linked above will be an overestimate not an underestimate. We need to find time to refine this part but as a starting point on calculating your company’s digital emissions, check out the Digital Declutter Toolkit that we developed with Business Declares.

Spreadsheet Templates

We have a spreadsheet template here that you can copy and adapt to gather data about home energy and commuting from staff members.

You could also use this other spreadsheet for calculating the emissions of online events as a starting point for working out digital emissions, though as noted above the estimates are likely too high. We’ll be updating that in future once we have completed our next round of research.

An easier option

If that all seems like too much work, our friend Rym Baouendi has founded Offset Go with the aim of making this all a lot simpler.

I hope that this article helps provide a good starting point for those of you looking to calculate the carbon emissions of remote workers, and would love to hear your experiences too. Drop me a note on LinkedIn if you feel like sharing. Also check our Climate Action Tech if you want to get involved with a great community discussing questions like this in the tech sector.