By: Niki Fuchs, Managing Director Office Space in Town (OSiT)
The drive to get people back to regular office working has found some vocal supporters in both business and politics. But while the arguments for and against a full return to the workplace have played out, the environmental and social impact of how and where we work has received less attention. As companies review their employees’ working patterns it’s essential to consider all the ESG implications.
In the UK, a quarter of employees now say they work in a hybrid way[i] and demand for flexible arrangements is increasing. More than a fifth of UK job applications, in March this year, were for positions that included some element of remote working, up from 1% two years ago. In the US they made up half of applications.[ii]
The Environmental Dilemma
When offices were closed and people were working remotely the environmental benefits were clear – removing emissions linked to both transport and powering large office spaces.
In the US, where 90% of workers drive their cars to work rather than use public transport, those savings were even greater[iii].
But, in a hybrid working model, things are not so simple. When you consider the additional energy requirements of powering a home office including the electricity needed to run electronics and extra heating or air conditioning, the figures are more finely balanced.[iv]
All because the calculations are based on assumptions about how far people live from their office and the type of property they live in, changes to the distances people travel for work and the type of property they live in can alter the figures dramatically.
The waters are muddied even further if you consider research that suggest people who regularly work remotely are more likely to live further away from their office and drive more often[v] for non-work purposes. This argument gains traction when you consider the number of people who moved out of cities during the pandemic looking for a better work-life balance in the countryside.
Green And Pleasant Workplaces
Of course, in a hybrid work model, companies still have to power offices regardless of how many employees are using them. With fewer people in an office at any one time it becomes proportionately less environmentally friendly to run. This is forcing companies to innovate with exciting new office technologies which, of course, employees can only benefit from if they use the office.
But hybrid working is not just about the environment. Social and governance aspects are equally important.
On the upside, companies can help improve the well-being of employees by giving them the option to work remotely. We know that people who regularly work remotely say their work-life balance has improved, they have more time, fewer distractions and report improved well-being.
But on the flipside, access to remote working is far from equal. According to research in the UK remote and hybrid working is a privilege that tends to be enjoyed by higher earners. Just 8% of those earning less than £15,000 a year say they work in a hybrid way in contrast to 38% of those earning more than £40,000 a year[vi]. Similarly, hybrid working is less enjoyed by the youngest and oldest in the workforce.
While politicians and business leaders cajole us politely, or otherwise to return to the office because we’ll be more productive and energetic, it’s clear that hybrid and remote working are not going to disappear anytime soon.
For as long as that continues there will be real pressure on office space providers to ensure that modern workspaces are as attractive, welcoming and environmentally friendly as possible, while for companies occupying them it is crucial that any hybrid working policy considers the unseen and unintended social and environmental consequences of remote and hybrid working.