With hybrid working establishing itself as a long-term trend, there has been a discussion about its potential environmental impact. This article examines the difficult relationship between hybrid jobs and whether they are as environmentally friendly as they seem, as well as including positive suggestions on how companies can achieve sustainable hybrid and remote work.
Is Hybrid Working Better For The Environment?
At first look, it makes sense that hybrid work is more sustainable than onsite-based companies; if people don’t need to travel then they are automatically going to have lower carbon footprints, correct? Unfortunately, this might not be the case.
When the pandemic first hit, large swaths of the global workforce were forced to work from home, as a result, there was a reported 17% decrease in global CO2 emissions. Fast forward 3 years, we haven’t returned to full-time office work and many companies now offer fully flexible roles, yet global emissions have nearly returned to the same levels as their 2019 peak.
Obviously, hybrid work might not be as sustainable as we first thought. Whether or not hybrid work is better for the environment depends on various factors about individual employees and the organisations they work for.
Let’s explore the environmental issues associated with hybrid work and discuss how organisations can reduce their impact.
The Environmental Benefits of Hybrid Work
The pandemic led to an almost instantaneous shift of work, business meetings and conferences moving online. Hybrid companies have a wealth of different technology options available to enable them to conduct nearly all business virtually. This meant companies could, and have, made the switch to WFH or hybrid work models on a permanent basis.
This remote switch is one of the primary benefits of hybrid work from an environmental perspective, that it reduces the need for employees to commute to and from the office. This not only reduces energy consumption but also reduces emissions from transportation. If 3.9 million people switched to remote work for half their working days, thereby halving their commute time, then that would save the same amount of greenhouse gas as taking 600,000 cars off the road every year!
However, cars are a drop in the ocean compared to aeroplanes. Taking cars off the road isn’t enough to lower companies’ emissions. Actually, it was the immediate drop in air travel that was one of the principal reasons for global emissions falling during the pandemic. Therefore, anything companies can do to keep flying to a minimum must be encouraged.
Finally, with so many people working at home, hybrid work can lead to a decrease in office energy output. On a larger scale, careful hybrid office design and office space management can result in lowered energy bills. And on a micro level, hybrid employees require fewer office supplies for their work like paper, pens, and stationary, as everything can now be done online.
Many companies have implemented sustainability initiatives such as cutting down on plastic packaging materials or collecting used products for recycling, which further contributes to reducing waste from offices.
During the pandemic, recycling actually increased, suggesting that employees practice better sustainability behaviours at home than in the office. Although this depends on local services and as hybrid workforces are often global, levels of recycling vary depending on where employees are based.
Company initiatives like recycling subscribe to the ethos that ‘every little helps’, but is that enough when it comes to decreasing a company’s carbon footprint?
Disadvantages Of Hybrid Work For The Environment
Despite the many potential environmental benefits associated with hybrid work, the reality is somewhat different and there are complexities to consider.
Firstly, while offices might decrease their energy usage there is an increase in domestic energy usage from home office equipment such as computers and printers. WFH or hybrid employees may not be as energy conscious when it comes to turning off lights, electronics and other appliances that can contribute to greenhouse gases. This is especially true if their company is subsidising their energy bills for their WFH days.
More than energy bills though are heating costs; working from home may lead to an increase in emissions due to the increased use of at-home heating. This is because WFH employees are more likely to heat their homes for longer periods than those who go into the office or travel for work.
How To Reduce The Environmental Impact Of Hybrid Work
There are several steps that businesses can take to reduce the environmental impact of hybrid work.
For example, to tackle the issue of WFH employees heating their homes, companies could take a combined strategy. A UK study conducted by a 200-employee-strong consulting firm, WSP, showed that the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions in their hybrid workplace was for employees to work from home during summer months and then commute into the office during the colder months.
By taking a hybrid approach, WSP manages to lower the net carbon footprint of its employees. This approach would also be beneficial in helping companies reduce their energy consumption costs, as they wouldn’t need to keep their offices running at total capacity throughout all of the seasons.
On a much larger level, enterprise with the capacity, will need to look towards utilising green energy sources such as solar or wind power to reduce energy consumption and emissions associated with electricity usage.
Whilst on a smaller level, all businesses, large and small can be investing in more energy-efficient office equipment as a way to contribute. It is also the perfect time to do this as many companies are adapting their offices to hybrid work with renovations like hybrid meeting rooms or on-site canteens, as ways to encourage people to collaborate.
Every time a business outsources a service, it should seek other companies that are trying to be more sustainable as well. For example, there are eco-friendly courier and shipping companies that focus on reducing carbon footprints, or for example, buying in reusable packaging to reduce emissions from shipping.
How To Achieve Sustainable Remote Work
When it comes to achieving truly sustainable remote work, it will take a prolonged long-term effort to introduce hybrid company policies that make a difference.
Companies should create greener policies that prioritise sustainability in the workplace and promote an eco-friendly culture. These initiatives could involve implementing a company-wide recycling program. Also, organisations should review their business models to see how they can reduce their environmental impact, no matter how small the adjustment.
This could include making changes such as using renewable energy sources for operations or investing in technology with lower carbon footprints. Organisations could consider ways to incentivise employees who adopt sustainable practices while working remotely by offering rewards such as discounts on products or services that are produced sustainably.
Other ideas include bike-to-work schemes or subsidised public transport costs. Or perhaps making recycling of electronic devices as easy as possible by offering free pick-up services for tricky-to-dispose-of items like old printers, TVs, and white goods.
Most importantly though, it will be down to remote leaders to become role models if a truly sustainable culture is to be created. Leaders have the power to set an example for their team members and show them what it means to be environmentally conscious in their work.
There is no one size fits all approach to how a hybrid company can be sustainable, but by taking steps to reduce its environmental footprint and encourage sustainable habits among its staff members, an organisation can achieve a more successful hybrid work policy while being mindful of the environment at the same time.
Ultimately, there are both benefits and drawbacks to take into consideration when it comes to deciding if hybrid work is better for the environment or not.
On one hand, hybrid work can lead to decreased energy consumption and emissions from transportation due to reduced commuting, business travel and fewer office supplies being used.
On the other hand, it can lead to increased energy usage from home office equipment and heating bills. Admittedly though these drawbacks can be mitigated by utilising green energy sources, investing in energy efficient equipment, utilising sustainable shipping methods, and adopting company-wide policies like working in the office more during the summer.
Business leaders should strive to create greener policies that support sustainability and nurture eco-friendly cultures in their workplaces to achieve sustainable remote work that makes a difference.