With the impacts of the coronavirus seemingly coming to an end (touch wood), companies are feeling the full pressure of those with a stake in real estate wanting you to come back to work in the office full time. However, now is the time to hold strong and not give up the ground that the industry has gained, remote-first hybrid working environment deserves its place in the future.
If the pressure to move backward is high, maybe consider the environmental impacts of the traditional office culture and how switching to a virtual working space can help ease your mind in the upcoming fight against climate change, and the struggle to keep our spaces clean.
So How Could a Change in How we Work Help Mitigate Global Warming?
That’s right, it’s back (it never really left), with Covid-19 soon to leave the headlines (touch wood, again) climate change is back on the menu, and rightly so. Due to the mix of lockdowns and work from home orders worldwide in 2020, global carbon emissions were reduced by a whopping 2.3 billion tonnes, which to put in perspective was just a 6.4% decrease from 2019 levels, we still have a long way to go. And to make matters worse, 2021 emission levels bounced back up, almost entirely removing the ‘progress’ we made the prior year.
At this point, it is natural to question why spewing 36 billion metric tons of the stuff into the atmosphere matters. The greenhouse effect, as taught in high school, is the phenomenon where the solar radiation (heat) from the sun that hits the earth and warms the surface, gets trapped in our atmosphere when it would normally dissipate into space - this trapped heat leads to global warming. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning increases in the prevalence of CO2 in the atmosphere also increase this ‘insulation’ of our atmosphere, beyond the natural equilibrium of the planet.
According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the recognised target of 1.5C degrees is unlikely to be met given current global policy, and overshooting to 2 degrees is also on the cards.
Remote-first hybrid working implies choosing to work from home around 3 days a week, and unless you sleep in the office that's already 6 commutes off the table. Wondering just how much of a difference that can make? The average driver in the UK releases 1.743 metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and if you’re in a more spread out country and drive a bigger less efficient car like many in the US do, you could be releasing up to 4.6 metric tonnes of carbon.
These numbers of course vary immensely on what kind of car you drive, and how far you commute. Have a go at working out how big your carbon footprint is here.
Reducing Our Energy Demand
Another impact working from home will have on our carbon footprint is through our energy demand. Offices have the benefit of being used by up to hundreds of people at a time but are often filled with antiquated technology, all very inefficient when it comes to electricity. And with soaring energy prices on the horizon, 30% of smaller businesses with less room in their budget are considering switching to working from home to cut the cost. So how much energy does an office actually use? According to a variety of energy research, the figure stands at around 20Kw/h of electricity and 24 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot, with figures increasing for larger businesses.
Switching to working from home won't reduce these numbers to zero, as energy spent in the office is energy spent at home. However, doing so gives agency to your employees and allows them to control their electricity usage for themselves - incentivizing more energy-efficient practices. Solutions to reduce home energy usage are far more abundant and obvious for the average employee than a group effort to reduce office power usage.
Virtual collaboration allows employees to stay at home and take control, they can consciously turn off appliances at the wall when not in use whereas that will only cause delays and further losses in an office. Also, a lot of homes now have LED lighting which is far more efficient than the typical fluorescent tubes you’ll find the office. You can find many more tips and tricks to reduce your household energy use with OVO, Greenmatch, and UKPower.
It's Time we Learnt to Use Less Paper
A big difference between your home working and office working that you may not have noticed is your difference in paper usage. A pretty mind-blowing statistic is that the US offices (not even the whole world!) use an estimated 12.1 TRILLION sheets of paper a year. In fact, 35% of trees that are harvested are for paper usage, producing 300 million tons of paper globally annually, which according to Afandpa only gets recycled at a 63% rate.
The paper industry had wiggled its way into almost every corner of the office industry, that is part of the reason there is so much paperwork. Choosing to meet your colleagues in an online working space allows you to reduce your company's paper usage. Some virtual workspaces like Wurkr, allow you to share files directly within their service having integrated all of our favourite Google apps. Often times employees don’t consider the cost of paper, financially or environmentally, printing hundreds of worksheets before properly checking them, only to have to throw them in the bin and reprint them after finding numerous mistakes.
So What, Trees are renewable, right?
Whilst it is true that trees and plants can be grown, regrown sustainably, that does not mean that paper is entirely sustainable. Oil is and its uses have been revolutionary for the human race, however, it is in no way a renewable resource, and its usage often releases further greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Oil is heavily required in the production process of paper, the paper used by the United States uses 12 billion gallons of oil, where recycling a tonne of paper saves 682.5 gallons.
Therefore, slightly less surprising is how much water is used in the production of just a single sheet of A4 paper: 10 Litres of Water.
While our water usage isn’t a problem yet, and technology can be upscaled to purify water to meet the growing demand of the world, it is an issue that is worth keeping in mind, and any way to mitigate our consumption of water will help reduce the crisis down the road.
The Very Real Problem of Air Pollution
As you probably know the greenhouse gases that our cars produce aren’t the end of it. Air pollution is a growing concern in densely populated developing countries. For most cars on the road, in order to get the wheels turning, fuel needs to be burnt, this releases numerous things harmful to humans, the main being nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and toxic particulate matter.
A breakdown from the RAC suggests that nitrogen oxide is responsible for the smog that you’ll see in areas where roads are constantly packed with cars. Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that is dangerous to humans as it displaces oxygen in the blood and can be lethal if it reaches a high enough proportion in the air, which is not likely to take place in an outdoor environment and is still harmful as it deprives the brain of oxygen.
Unfortunately, there is a perfect case to study when looking at the harmful effects of too many old cars driving in densely populated cities. Delhi, India’s air pollution has reached levels harmful to humans, with smog visibly dulling the air. In fact, as of writing this Dehli’s AQI (air quality index) is at a rating of 273 - rated “very unhealthy” - whilst the city of London has a moderate rating of 53. Find out the air quality of your city here.
Having recognized the harmful effects of Delhi's primary transport, the government urged its citizens to work from home in an attempt to reduce commuting and air pollution (as well as keep the citizen indoors, away from the toxic pollution).
This recognition of work-from-home policies being a solution of the future is a huge step forward for workplace culture and helps cement hybrid working’s position as the logical way forward.
Our Toxic Relationship with Plastic
Car emissions, greenhouse gases, and paper usage are all things we have a fairly good handle on, lots of research has gone into these areas and allow me to relay the concerns and how remote working helps mitigate them. Microplastics are a growing concern, and our knowledge of their long-term health effects are worryingly thin. Current research suggests that high concentrations of microplastics in the body can have an adverse effect on hormone production and wider damage to our delicate
There may seem like there is very little that you can do about reducing your plastic waste when virtually everything uses it in its production or packaging.
However, when you work from home you’ll most likely be helping the planet without even realising. According to a Mintel report, 76% of working Brits eat out for lunch every day, and far too often established food chains choose to use single-use plastics in their products even when paper alternatives could be just as good. Another common office worker delicacy is the local meal deal, an okay-sandwich, fizzy drink and a cheeky packet of crisps is a very typical £3 Tesco meal deal. Of this generic basket, the crisp packet is not recyclable and the plastic drink bottle while recyclable is still often destined for the general waste bin instead of as workers rush during their lunch break.
Dining at home makes it easy for you to do your part. On top of having wider access to what you want to eat, with no chance that anyone will nab your lunch, you have ultimate control over what waste you produce. During your weekly shop, you can be mindful and try to purchase low waste products and avoid the unrecyclable packaging you would normally be forced to buy if you were to get a takeaway.
Also at home, you have the time to properly rinse out any bottles or yogurt pots that would usually be incorrectly thrown in the blue bin - because in most cases only clean plastic is actually recyclable.
Make A Difference With Wurkr
Wurkr has pledged to plant a tree for every virtual office we create, and with thousands of trees planted so far, we are proud to be fighting climate change both directly and indirectly.