The radical switch to working from home, which the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it for many companies from March this year, has economic as well as environmental and social dimensions. Electricity and material requirements are shifting to private households, social inequalities are being reproduced and mobility is undergoing a change.

From a climate protection perspective, avoiding commuting and business trips is initially positive. The use of teleconferencing and video conferencing reduces up to 20 percent of business travel and thus 80 million tons of CO2[1].
Air traffic in particular, which is responsible for 2.83 percent of global CO2 emissions [2], has fallen by 85 percent. The virtualization of the working world therefore initially gives rise to hopes of a resulting reduction in emissions. However, the “German Travel Management Association” reported an increase in business travel in German companies of around 8 percent between 2014 and 2018 alone [3]. Better digital networking options make it possible to collaborate with contacts worldwide. This is yet another reason for a business trip. Although these are limited during the pandemic, there is a trend for the future in which the inevitable push towards digital collaboration due to Covid-19 does not necessarily mean the solution to the CO2 problem.

However, the argument that electricity and material requirements are increasing as the world of work shifts to the digital space does not outweigh the savings made through digital meetings. For example, according to a study by HubSpot, the number of emails sent has increased by an average of 20 percent compared to the situation before the pandemic[4]. However, an email causes only four grams of CO2 equivalents, with attachments up to 50 grams per email[5]. If you compare the primary energy consumption of a business trip with that of a video conference, this is 30 times lower for a business trip over 100 km by car and even 500 times lower for a trip of 1000 km by plane[6].

Another aspect of the change in mobility brought about by working from home is the largely simplified work-life balance. In this way, the savings on commuting can be used to devote time to private matters. In an analysis by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, the positive effects of a stable work-life balance are described, among other things, as simplifying life planning by making it easier to combine starting a family, spending time abroad and voluntary work. This in turn led to a 1.6 percent increase in productivity per hour worked, which in turn increased the competitiveness of companies in an international comparison and ultimately also the gross domestic product[7]. The momentum of 191. billion due to rising employment and the outlined population development for private consumption must, however, be viewed critically from an ecological perspective, as consumption in any form consumes natural resources worldwide and pollutes the environment.

Increased working from home should also be viewed critically from a social perspective. In the home office, the reproduction of role models can still be observed, in which women tend to be exposed to a double burden of paid wage labor and unpaid household and care work (ibid.) This situation is not sustainable in the long term, especially in connection with homeschooling and closed care facilities.
The increasing isolation and difficulty of mapping human communication digitally has “dramatic consequences for psyche and health”. According to Professor Dr. Magdalena Bathen-Gabriel, not only actual social isolation, but also perceived social isolation – which can occur despite being reachable by video conference and telephone – has negative health and psychological consequences[8]. Constant availability and the blurring of boundaries between work and private life also have negative consequences for health. In the AOK’s 23, sleep disorders, stomach pain and burnout are among the consequences of such stress. In the report, employees are advised to decide for themselves when it is necessary to receive business e-mails in their free time. Employees should create time and space for themselves. For companies, it is advisable to anchor the topics of health and work-life balance in the corporate culture and take them seriously. The recovery of employees should also be a priority for companies. [9]

After all, intersectional disadvantages for the socially disadvantaged also arise in the digital space. Despite the employer’s obligation to provide suitable work equipment and conditions, there was often a lack of technical equipment due to the rapid switch to working from home. Employers should urgently support their employees here in order to prevent discrimination. In addition to technical equipment, there is a lack of sufficient space and the possibility of local recreation on foot in often densely populated socially deprived residential areas. Here, a research group from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy gGmbH sees learning effects that will influence the “post-corona city”. For example, “local recreation will become more important, cities will have to be unsealed and green spaces created”. To this end, urban health, social, environmental and green space policies must be more closely integrated in the future and institutionally interlinked in city administrations. The space for walking and cycling must also be expanded in order to compensate for the declining attractiveness of public transport due to hygiene concerns and the resulting increase in motorized private transport[10].

Even before the current crisis, around ten percent of employees were working from home at least one day a week. The trend is moving towards digital collaboration. This is initially challenging and difficult to see as an equivalent substitute, especially in the absence of alternatives due to a pandemic. In order to exploit the great social and ecological potential, clear agreements must be made between employees and employers regarding the workplace and working hours to ensure the long-term health of employees. Furthermore, ecological aspects of any decision should be taken into account. In the long term, business trips in particular can be replaced by the potential of digital possibilities. If the pandemic situation allows, a hybrid form of digital collaboration and physical presence is certainly a profitable option.

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