COVID-19 changed the world of work: A closer look at the environment

Jan 29 · 4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world of work as we know it. With many offices closed, people have been forced to work from home. Old, well known structures have radically changed, and conventional working habits have been reinvented. What would never have seemed possible even last year, is our reality now:

Working from home is the new normal.

Working during the pandemic

This shift might have been easier for some, who were used to working from home, whereas for others this has been a completely new experience. The way of communication within companies has also changed. Employers have had to start trusting their employees even more, as we see a shift from presence focused working values to skill and productivity based working values. As the battle against COVID-19 rages on, remote working looks to be here to stay, especially as companies have found that productivity has remained the same or even improved, as their costs drop dramatically.

Curiously although not perhaps unsurprisingly, remote working also has ramifications for the environment. The daily commute to work is now largely redundant. As the vehicles of the commuters left the streets so too did the CO2 emissions. The animals rising up and taking back the empty streets were of course as temporary as our abandonment of these spaces. The skies will likely reclutter themselves with contrails as our desire to roam, especially after such incarceration, is once again sated. But if remote working is here to stay, does this spell a much needed victory for the environment? Here we look more closely at the environmental impact of working from home and consider whether it is truly sustainable.

‘Work’ as we know it has a large carbon footprint. But what about remote work?

With the workforce grounded at home, gone are the long commutes and the air pollution that goes with it. Breathe London data showed that emissions reduced 25% during the normal morning commute and 34% during the evening commute. With nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah becoming the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as her cause of death, after a fatal asthma attack in 2013, this is not something to be underestimated.

Plastic cutlery

Then there are less obvious changes as even the most bureaucratic paper-based systems find themselves forced into a more digitalised system of data storage and access. Plastic usage reduces as people cook in the comfort of their own kitchen thus eliminating single use plastic bottles, coffee cup lids and plastic food packaging.

Employers will enjoy some of the electricity savings to be garnered by reduced office size but this saving may not make it beyond the confines of their balance sheets. Modern offices tend to be well designed to minimise energy use, whilst private homes are often less so. It is not always the case that an office will use more energy than the consumption of all its employees heating or cooling their individual residences and its not always as easy as comparing the buildings that are in question; the seasons too change this dynamic.

To further complicate the issue, different countries have different energy consumptions, some have a high percentage of electric cars, others have very efficient public transport. The source of the energy is fundamental to the overall environmental question: where this energy is coming from — solar, wind, geo-thermal, hydro, nuclear, coal. What becomes apparent is that there are no clearcut answers when considering the sustainability of working from home.

The worst outcome it seems is when people split their time between home and the office. There has been an exodus from the cities as workers jump at the chance of cheaper property, more space and a different lifestyle. On those days when they go to the office, they are traveling further with a higher carbon footprint. Then we need to factor in how home working can impact the other choices we make in our daily lives, and the extra technological equipment or facilities we may need to support home working.

One of the most promising possibilities that comes as a spin off from remote working could be the opportunity for people to make healthier, greener choices with the extra time they have once the daily commute is gone. People can make more eco-friendly diet choices, with time to choose organic and locally sourced food.

Whilst remote working may not be as sustainable as it first appears, there are certainly steps we can take to make the impact as significant as possible. First and foremost, try to only heat or cool the room you are working in. And if you are able to, invest in solar energy and an electric car. If that’s beyond your budget, don’t underestimate the difference you can make simply by using less hot water, unplugging appliances when not in use, changing over to LED lights when possible and taking the time to compost and recycle.

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – St Francis of Assisi

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