The environmental benefits of changing working models

When the pandemic first hit, a sudden drop in carbon emissions was heralded as a minor silver lining. While this could not be sustained, there was speculation that certain changes in behavior – such as long-term remote working – could lead to a more environmentally friendly future. With the world now resetting and the likes of remote working being replaced by hybrid models, is that still achievable?

The behavioral changes driven by the pandemic – specifically a more contactless, virtual society – have led some to debate whether we might emerge from the crisis with a more sustainable way of life. While the sudden and swift move to lockdowns globally was always going to have a short-term impact, data suggests that this started to evolve into a broader trend. An International Energy Agency article said that "pandemic defined energy and emissions trends in 2020 – it drove down fossil fuel consumption for much of the year, whereas renewables and electric vehicles…were largely immune."

Why a pandemic won't reduce emissions permanently

Of course, energy demands were always likely to rebound, with the IEA going on to state that global energy demand rebounded by 4.6% in 2021, taking it above pre-pandemic levels. This underlines what Professor Constantine Samaras highlighted in a previous article when he said, "A pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce emissions. There's nothing to celebrate here. We have to recognize that and recognize that technological, behavioral and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions."

The article that quoted Samaras looked at whether remote working was environmentally friendly and was published less than six months after the full force of the pandemic hit. Now, two years after terms like lockdowns and working from home went mainstream, it is worth considering whether there have been any longer-term environmental benefits from more dispersed models of working.

The myths of environmentally friendly remote working

First, it is important to challenge assumptions that people not traveling as much will have a lower carbon footprint. In specific cases, that is certainly true – where people traveled significant distances in private vehicles, for instance. Yet many workers swapped energy-efficient offices for homes with varying insulation and heating systems standards.

As more companies adopt a hybrid workplace model, there can be the issue of the simultaneous heating and lighting of homes and offices that adds to the energy consumption impact.

It's a problem highlighted by a study from the University of Manchester and Lancaster University, which also noted that, in many instances, employers did not send existing office equipment to workers' homes but instead procured new devices (or required employees to supply their own). This led to a "mass duplication of carbon-intensive technology and furniture which could have been mitigated."

This all points to the fact that hybrid working is not in and of itself inherently more environmentally friendly than being fully onsite, just as remote working was not automatically more sustainable. In fact, there is a risk that organizations that deploy hybrid working will inadvertently increase their impact on the environment in certain circumstances.

According to the University of Manchester's Dr. Torik Holmes, to get to a point where hybrid working positively contributes to a business' sustainability efforts, companies need "to place sustainability front and center of hybrid working models, alongside the principles of productivity, flexibility and well-being that are already being discussed."

Capitalizing on behavioral change with improved technology

This aligns with Professor Samaras' point that true impact will only occur with technological, behavioral and structural change. The difference is that now, new working models such as hybrid have had a chance to bed in, or if not yet fully deployed, are being appropriately planned. This is in stark contrast to the situation in 2020, when the rapid rate of change meant many were making it up as they went along.

For instance, the processes being implemented to support hybrid working could include formal systems that allow businesses to see when office space will be occupied and at what density. With that data, decisions can then be made on where utilities (such as lighting, heating, air conditioning and water supply) need to be on and where they can be turned down or switched off completely. Using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can help automate that process and even make it more dynamic so that changes can be made in real time if actual occupancy is different from what was expected.

Then there is an understanding of how employees want to work. Two years of videoconferencing replacing face-to-face meetings has led to fatigue. While Zoom, Webex and Teams are critical to ensure collaboration and communication irrespective of location, there is an opportunity to adapt how the tools are used to meet employee preferences and issues with energy consumption. For example, a Zoom video call requires around 600 kbps for a high-quality video rising to 1 Mbps for group calling, while a Zoom phone call only needs between 60 and 100 kbps. That's a major drop in bandwidth demand and, therefore, energy consumption.

There is also employers' influence on how employees work when they're out of the office. Aside from providing clear guidance on sustainable IT practices when working from home, there is also the opportunity for businesses to formalize how they provide personal technology. Employees that are no longer chained to desks are becoming more vocal in the types of devices they want to use, which in turn is leading companies to re-examine their procurement patterns. The way devices are supplied, the devices themselves and the way they are disposed of can all be made more sustainable. That might mean aligning the delivery of new technology with a scheduled trip to the office, investing in more up-to-date, energy-efficient computing or ensuring end-of-life products are recycled or reused.

No one can rely on something as unpredictable as a pandemic to drive lower emissions. However, the behavioral changes it has prompted can be adapted for businesses wanting to operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner. As more organizations adopt new working models, they have an opportunity to use technology in line with these behavioral changes to reduce energy consumption and waste, whether employees are in the office, working from home or elsewhere.

How employees use devices is a critical part of sustainable business practices. To find out how you could evolve your approach to employee computing and benefit from both the economic and environmental benefits of innovations such as device-as-a-service, get in touch today.

Josh Turner
Josh Turner

I am a technology writer with a decade of experience in business, technology and logistics. From starting off my career writing questions for a TV quiz show, I’m now spending my time looking at how the world of business is going digital and transforming a variety of sectors and industries.