This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. This story was produced by Grist and was co-published with Fast Company.

When office workers stopped working in offices in 2020, trading their cubicles for living room couches during COVID-19 lockdowns, many began questioning those hours they had spent commuting to work. All those rushed mornings stuck in traffic could have been spent getting things done. Life was often lonely for those stuck in their homes, but people found something to appreciate when birdsong rang through the quiet streets. And the temporary dip in travel had the side effect of cutting global carbon emissions by seven per cent in 2020 — a blip of good news in an otherwise miserable year.

Emissions bounced back in 2021 when people started resuming some of their normal activities, but offices have never been the same. While remote work was rare before the pandemic, today, 28 per cent of Americans are working a “hybrid” schedule, going into the office some days, and 13 per cent are working remotely full-time.

Recent data suggest that remote work could speed along companies’ plans to zero out their carbon emissions, but businesses don’t seem to be considering climate change in their decisions about the future of office work. “In the U.S., I’m sad to say it’s just not high on the priority list,” said Kate Lister, the founder of the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. “It gets up there, and then it drops again for the next shiny object.” Commuter travel falls under a company’s so-called “Scope 3” emissions, the indirect sources that routinely get ignored, but represent, on average, three-quarters of the business world’s emissions.

A 10 per cent increase in people working remotely could reduce carbon emissions by 192 million metric tons a year, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Cities. That would cut emissions from the country’s most polluting sector, transportation, by 10 per cent. Those findings align with other peer-reviewed research: Switching to remote work instead of going into the office can cut a person’s carbon footprint by 54 per cent, according to a study published in the journal PNAS last fall, even when accounting for non-commute travel and residential energy use.

“It seems like a very obvious solution to a very pressing and real problem,” said Curtis Sparrer, a principal and co-founder of the PR agency Bospar, a San Francisco-based company where employees have been working remotely since it started in 2015. “And I am concerned that this whole ‘return-to-office’ thing is getting in the way.”

Many companies are mandating their employees show up for in-person work regularly. Last year, big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Meta told employees that they had to come back to the office three days a week or face consequences, like a lower chance of getting promoted. Even Zoom, the company that became a household name during the pandemic for its videoconferencing platform, is making employees who live within 50 miles of the office commute two days a week.

Of course, there are many benefits that come with heading into the office to work alongside other humans. Interacting with your coworkers in person gives you a social boost (without the awkward pauses in Zoom meetings) and a compelling reason to change out of your sweatpants in the morning. From a climate change standpoint, the problem is that most Americans tend to jump in their cars to commute, instead of biking or hopping on the bus. A recent poll from Bospar found that two-thirds of Americans are driving to work — and they’re mostly in gas-powered cars. Even though purchases of electric vehicles are rising, they make up roughly one per cent of the cars on the road.

The climate benefits start falling off quickly when people are summoned into the office. Working from home two to four days a week cuts emissions by between 11 and 29 per cent compared with full-time office work, according to the study in PNAS by researchers at Cornell University and Microsoft. If you only work remotely one day a week, those emissions are only trimmed by two per cent. Another big factor is that maintaining physical office space sucks up a lot of energy since it needs to be heated and cooled.

The problem with forcing people back to the office? All the carbon emissions. #RemoteWork #Scope3Emissions #CarbonEmissions #Traffic #Travel

So should companies be allowed to claim they’re going green when they’re forcing employees to commute? Many Americans don’t think so, according to Bospar’s survey. Well over half of millennials and gen Zers said it’s hypocritical for companies to observe Earth Day while requiring employees to attend work in person.

Sparrer points to Disney, which celebrated Earth Month in April with a campaign to promote its environmental efforts but ordered workers to come into the office four days a week last year. Nike, meanwhile, promoted its Earth Day collection of “sustainable” leather shoes while its CEO, John Donahoe, argued that remote work stifled creativity. “In hindsight, it turns out, it’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom,” he told CNBC.

“We are entering a time of magical thinking, where people seem to think that this is enough, and it’s not,” Sparrer said. “And the frustration I have is that we all got to experience what it’s like to work from home, and we know how it works, and we know how it can be improved.”

Working from home, though, could present its own environmental challenges. Recent research that looked at trends before the pandemic found that if 10 per cent of the workforce started working remotely, transit systems in the U.S. would lose $3.7 billion every year, a 27 per cent drop in fare revenue, according to the study in Nature Cities, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, and Peking University in Beijing. Some experts worry that remote work could push people into the suburbs, where carbon footprints tend to be higher than in cities.

Right now, there are many employees who want to work at home full-time but are forced to go into the office, Lister said. She sees the return-to-office mandates as a result of corporate leadership that wants to go back to how things used to be.

“As that generation retires,” she said, “I think that a lot of these conversations will go away.”

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Understand there are two sides of the coin on this issue, the employee perspective, and the company who wants staff in the office 2-3 times a week or even full time.

As an employee and with the cost of everything these days, commuting is a major expense to consume in order to go into the work location. The tremendous cost savings working from home is extremely attractive, the reduced stress of the commute on mental health and better work-home balance. But I do acknowledge that certain jobs are not suited for remote work or even a slight modification of remote work. There is also a hidden health aspect to daily commutes, being exposed to fossile fuel exhaust daily can lead to COPD. Being on the road every day for years, I am fortunate to not have full blown COPD, but just a touch of it from fossile fuel exhaust. I have known runners who ended up with COPD by running in areas with steady traffic.

But to be fair, there are employees who are irresponsible or abuse the privilege to work remotely. There are cases where an employee is working remotely for more than one company and clearly not putting 100% effort in for the employer they are expected to work for. There are also employees who dislike working remotely and would rather come in every day.

From the employer side of things, there are those who like to micromanage people and have had my share of managers like that over the years. In one case I left a company for that very reason as a professional IT guy. Either you trust my ability to do the job properly or I just don't need someone constantly looking over my shoulder every second. In other cases, certain tasks require in-person attendance to be productive. Certainly, not all jobs collaborate well with a remote workforce. Sometimes they just want to see your face and observe that you are doing something productive for the bottom line. In the end, employees must understand that working remotely is a privilege and not a right. Like all privileges, you must earn it and prove your worth. After all, a company pays you for your time and presence each workday.

At this stage of my life, I started my own company several years ago with my partner and made use of IT contract workers to fulfill obligations for my clients where required. What works well, the contractor will estimate the effort of the task and typically meet the targets. What else they do is not my concern as it would be for someone working for you full-time. Despite the company operations, I manage my own time and work-home balance and never have to commute. This has been far less stressful than working for a company and dealing with unreasonable people in the workplace. If you work in any company as an IT professional, you know all too well how unreasonable an end-user can be, especially in upper management teams and functions when something isn't working. But I do understand, this is not always suitable in certain types of jobs, but in my case has worked out well for me.