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Over the course of the pandemic lockdowns, many discovered some of the benefits of working from home, but whether that includes helping the environment is open to question.
The pandemic has made many companies reconsider their working style with more opting for a work from home (WFH) solution. And, as the world tried to halt the spread of Covid-19 through lockdowns and travelling restrictions, statistics showed a significant drop in air pollution.
Andy Lake, specialist in the implementation of smart and flexible working and founder of the Smart Work Network, says: “The carbon footprint of people travelling to work is about 1.4 metric tons of CO2 per year and about 75% of that relates to commuting travel and business travel, and most of the rest of it relates to building utilities.”
Both in the UK and US, data shows how car travel due to daily commuting went down in 2020. According to the UK’s Department for Transport car travel was reduced by approximately 60%, whilst travel to work fell by 50%. Also, bus travel was reduced by nearly 90%, and train and underground travel went down almost 100% from normal levels. In general in the US, carbon dioxide emissions from transportation fell by 15%.
Following these statistics more people are led to believe that WFH is a better option for the environment. However, the answer is not so straightforward. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions at the University of Sussex found that “while most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings”.
Firstly, it is important to remember that the statistics from 2020 reflect a different reality from what working remotely will look like in a post-pandemic world without lockdowns and other social restrictions.
The University of Sussex research found that “where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”
Indeed, it is necessary to add into the equation the environmental costs of a home office. Whilst in a company’s office, the employer is responsible for a sustainable workplace. At home it is down to the employee to be aware of the environment and pollution.
When asked whether WFH is greener, Lake believes that it depends on different factors, one of them being the facility where you are working. He says: “Some studies have shown there’s an increase in use of home utilities, but other studies have shown that it was the other way round because in offices you tend to keep all the buildings’ services on all of the time and you’re heating up the building whether there are people or not.”
However, he also adds: “Some of these potential gains come from being able to align your real estate demands according to levels of occupancy and also adding intelligent building systems.”
The study also found that personal emissions were lowered by up to 80% in some homeworking cases. This means that if workers make conscious choices and lead a life which is overall more environmentally friendly, WFH could help reduce their carbon footprint.
Another issue, which needs to be considered, is that, whilst parents might be home working, children might still need to be taken to school. According to Lake, WFH allows more parents to avoid driving the kids to school and find alternative ways to get there.
“There’s some evidence from studies that people tend to walk more with their children to school rather than drop them off with a car on their way to work,” he says.
However, statistics have also highlighted that as people choose WFH they tend to move further away from city centres and potentially from schools, which could still mean driving children to school.
To accommodate the requests of employees who want to continue WFH, many companies are now launching a hybrid working model, with weekdays split between home and the office. However, this could potentially be the worst solution for the environment.
Similar to the issue related to driving children to school, in cases where parents have moved further from their offices it could mean people having to commute for longer times, even if this is less frequently.
“The question is, do they travel into the office? How often do they do it and does that total mileage increase the total amount that they travel? We don’t really know that yet. There hasn’t been evidence before the pandemic that it is the case,” says Lake. However, he adds that there are many variables which make a difference, such as if someone is only going into the office once a month or if they are commuting via public transport.
Another issue related to hybrid working is the size of the office and in some cases the energy wasted to run it, even though only half or a quarter of workers are using the utilities. For this reason, many companies have been downsizing their office. When doing this, it is important to plan ahead with regard to where all the unwanted equipment and furniture will go.
However, downsizing can be the best solution in the long term for companies choosing a hybrid approach.
“If you keep most of the old style furniture, you compromise your ability to use the space efficiently. One of the things that’s changing in office design is, instead of having lots of individual assigned spaces, you get different kind of spaces and everything is shared. So you need more areas, some quiet rooms, project areas and much less in the way of desk space,” says Lake.
By making these changes now, it will be easier to reconfigure space in the future. He adds: “When somebody new comes into the office, if you’re recruiting, you don’t have to get extra space; you don’t have to buy extra furniture; and you should be able to accommodate more of these kinds of changes at a very low environmental cost.”
Despite being difficult to state with any degree of certainty whether working from home is the best option due to the many variables related to individual situations, there are still different ways to make it greener.
As Lake points out, making sure that your house is sustainable and that you can reduce its emissions when energy is not needed is vital. “A lot of homes are not well-designed at all for home-based working, so there is a lot of thinking going into that,” he says.
As new houses are being built, it is also important for architects to consider how to include spaces where people can work. flexibility.co.uk discusses this topic in some of their articles. Also, there are online resources and experts who are happy to help companies and individual employees minimise the environmental impact of their workplace.
Some changes may be minimal, such as using as much natural light as possible and dressing adequately for the season to save electricity, recycling and using energy-efficient appliances. Others may be more expensive and not as easily accessible, like having to look for greener options for your gas and electricity or moving into a more modern building.
Ultimately, it comes down to an individual’s daily choices and acts when it comes to minimising their environmental impact.