It seems a long time ago that climate change was our number one source of anxiety. Since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, it has taken all our attention and focus of activities. Perhaps rightly so, but as we start to move slowly back to normality we need to re-focus and re-plan for a very different future. A low carbon, sustainable future.

Return to (bad) old habits?

One of the few positive aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the lowering of carbon emissions and pollution seen across the world. Photos of clear skies in Delhi and Beijing reinforced by satellite images showing how quickly the planet seemed to recover once we stopped traveling, were reassuring.

As we emerge from lock down this picture has sadly reversed, and levels are returning to where they were if not higher. A recent report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air showed rebounds happening in many European cities.

Inspired by the “Build Back Better” campaign many people are calling for a major rethink in the way we work post COVID-19 to emerge stronger and better. A recent report by the UK Committee on Climate Change urged the government to turn this crisis into an opportunity.

CCC Chairman, Lord Deben, said: “The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation. Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it’s there for the taking. The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience. Choices that lock in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”

Rethinking workplace strategies

At AWA we believe that work is not where you are but what you do, and that the traditional office environment and culture was overdue a shake up even before this pandemic. By balancing role, need and function, businesses can improve productivity, save costs and make their people happier and heathier.

Changing where and how we work can result in significant reductions in CO2 emissions. Back in 2014 long before the pandemic, a Carbon Trust report on home working estimated that extending homeworking to an additional 4 million people would save over 3 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

An UWE study in 2017 revealed that every extra minute of commuting time reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

We need to transition to a new way of working that cuts out unnecessary travel, limits the time and fuel wasted on commuting, reduces the energy use of our offices, removes the need for paper and other consumables, allows us to work in the right place independent of physical constrains and adopt a routine that significantly lowers our negative impact on the environment.

Cutting out just one return flight from London to New York would reduce CO2 emissions by more than some people emit in a whole year. An office with 100 staff cutting their paper use by half would save more than 200 trees each year.

Low carbon working

Low Carbon Working takes four aspects of workplace strategy and provides a measurable framework for assessing current emissions and predicting the effect of workplace changes on future emissions.

  1. Re-thinking the office.  As we have seen during lock down many people work just as well if not better from home. This allows office space to be redesigned and, in many cases, reduced. A reduction in ft2 or in density of occupancy allows energy use to be cut.
  2. Go paperless. Working from home has seen office print use drop dramatically. Even if this is partly offset by local printers the idea of the “Paperless Office” has come one step closer.
  3. Reduce commuting. Working at home or in a local drop-in centre has a big impact on carbon emissions and employee satisfaction even if only done for a few days a week.
  4. Business Travel. Although relationship building means that some business travel is essential, people are realising that much of the routine work can be done just as well virtually. 

Most of these changes are happening anyway, accelerated by the Government enforced lock down, but the environmental impact is not always monitored and reported. To help reinforce and cement new behaviours it is important to show the link between the way we work and the CO2 we emit.

Carbon accounting is more than simply analysing energy consumption. Carbon accounting requires in-depth analysis into where and when emissions are being created by the business.

To complement the existing Workplace Strategies, AWA has teamed up with Emitwise a SaaS company which helps companies measure and manage their carbon footprint across their operations and supply chains. Through the use of AI and machine learning, Emitwise allows companies to become carbon neutral and position themselves as sustainability leaders.

Emitwise’s combination of technological and carbon accounting expertise allows for expenditure data to be automatically converted into carbon emissions. Through engaging dashboards, companies can segment their carbon emissions by source, date and location.

Powerful modelling capabilities allow for the impact of different Workplace strategies to be translated into carbon emissions savings. Using sustainability data will allow businesses to make informed choices on how the future of offices will be shaped.

Environmental sustainability is also an important factor when people are choosing where to work and in determining the way they feel about their employer.

The 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study found that 64% of millennial’s would not work for a company that did not have strong social or environmental commitments. 

Giving people the choice on where to work represents a huge opportunity to hire the best talent regardless of location and a way of overcoming high cost of living in some cities.

As many people have discovered over the last few months, working remotely and traveling less has many benefits but also some drawbacks. There may be fewer interruptions, but social cohesion is weakened, and team dynamics affected.

Unless these issues can be addressed then organisations will be unable to find the right balance and may revert to traditional office-based ways of working and pre lock down levels of emissions.

Managing the virtual workforce

Research conducted by the AWA Institute has found six main findings that need to be addressed to make the Virtual Workforce effective and cohesive. Only then can a business completely adopt and benefit from Low Carbon Working.

Six Key Findings
1. Working apart impacts team dynamics, the frequency and quality of communications, levels of consensus and conflict, and the amount and quality of social interaction. All of these impact the performance of teams and the outcomes they generate.
2. Successful virtual working requires an understanding of the differences that people experience, compared to being co-located. To avoid damage to team performance, people need to respond to the differences and find alternative ways to operate.
3. Effective virtual teams are determined by the strength of their social and cognitive states – i.e. the degree to which they are socially cohesive, trust each other, operate within a psychologically safe climate and share skills, experience and knowledge freely.
4. While all factors interconnect, trust and communication lie at the foundation of cohesion, supervision, communication, the sharing of skills and knowledge, work relationships and the performance of virtual teams.
5. Trust, social cohesion and information sharing seem to be the most potentially vulnerable to damage when people work virtually and must be consciously understood and actively managed – they can’t be left to chance.
6. In virtual teams there is potential for everyone to be a leader – they respond well to more transformational management styles. This involves creating a strong team structure, empowering and guiding the team, involving them in the development of group goals and supporting them in actively reflecting on decision making and outcomes.

By combining business needs, personal preferences and emissions data we can develop a solution that offers financial, human, cultural and environmental benefits to any business seeking to build back better.

This is a very challenging time for everyone. But it gives us an opportunity to rethink how and where we work to save ourselves and the planet.