Environmental value of telework in government (updated)

It’s been ~18 months since my last post about the State of California’s “Telework Dashboard”, so this felt like a good time for quick update.

Since then, Department of General Services (DGS) has continued working with different departments across the State of California to include their telework data into this award winning dashboard. And they’ve made impressive progress.

In March 2021, this dashboard showed real-time telework information from 12 agencies with a combined total of ~11,244 humans. Today, ~18 months later, this dashboard now shows real-time telework information from 99 agencies with a combined total of ~133,045 humans. With more still being added!

How telework combats climate change

This dashboard clearly shows the scale of the benefits of changing commute patterns using widespread, long-term telework. Because these 99 agencies are allowing employees to work from home, we can see that these agencies have reduced collective carbon emissions by 15,434 metric tons during the month of October.

I still find it hard to understand a metric ton of CO2, so to get a sense of the scale of this impact, I turn again to CarbonFootprint.com. They calculate that flying a plane nonstop from San Francisco to Washington DC, land and then fly nonstop back to San Francisco generates 1.10 metric tons of CO2 emissions — the pollution that contributes to the problem of climate change. The 133,045 humans at these agencies who “worked remotely” some (or all) of October 2022 reduced the carbon footprint of their combined commutes by the same amount as NOT making 13,421 round-trip flights between San Francisco and Washington DC, In just the month of October alone. 

Or to phrase it another way: canceling this telework policy and requiring all staff at all these agencies to commute daily to their offices would add the same carbon emissions as a policy decision to fly 13,421 nonstop flights from San Francisco to Washington DC and back during the month of October. That’s a new round-trip flight taking off from San Francisco every three minutes — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the entire month of October. 

Setting the standard for a cleaner future

Looking at just this one aspect of the potential environmental benefits of long-term telework can help inform next steps for government agencies who are thinking about their “telework” policies post-COVID. These 99 agencies are tackling hard climate change problems by:

  • Focusing on the largest segment of emissions in the state (commuter traffic pollution according to the California Air Resource Board), then measurably reducing those emissions today by eliminating the need for staff to commute daily from home to the office and back home again.
  • Empowering staff to work effectively and securely from their homes, using modern, consumer-grade technology.
  • Automatically and publicly tracking the impact of these actions in order to make informed policy decisions for the future.

The California agencies contributing data to the live dashboard are showing admirable leadership in tracking the potential benefits of long-term telework at scale in the public sector and I get more delighted by the results as this work continues to scale. These forward-thinking policies, along with the easily digestible info on the dashboard, are a powerful combination, with timely data helping inform smarter decisions and supporting a cleaner future for the government workforce. Thank you (again) to Andrew SturmfelsAnn BaatenGary RensloStuart Drown and many many others for their continued hard work scaling this dashboard.