Published: 14/10/2020

In tackling the pandemic, we have all had to adapt and embrace new ways to conduct our daily lives. It is all aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19, and hopefully reducing the death toll. These changes could also produce a more sustainable, healthier, socially just and ecologically sound future.

One of the biggest changes has been the shift to working from home. As a result, it has meant commuting less and cutting unnecessary travel. Driving and aviation are the key contributors to emissions, respectively contributing 72% and 11% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. As industries, transport networks and businesses have closed, there has been a subsequent drop in carbon emissions. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50%. In China, emissions fell 25%. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over northern Italy and a similar story is playing out in Spain and the UK.

Remote workers also typically create less waste during their workday, preferring to use email and digital tools for messaging, taking notes and sending files. Working from home has also resulted in less food waste and single-use plastic food containers, given workers are only steps away from their own kitchen. 

One of the biggest opportunities arising from the remote work model is the greater flexibility in hiring. Roles that demand a lot of travel or are very inflexible have typically locked out women with caring responsibilities as well as candidates with disability or simply those who lived too far from the office.

However, it is questionable whether remote workers would use more energy compared to offices. Energy management systems in office buildings are generally more sophisticated than at individual homes. The burden of carbon impact may inadvertently fall on employees as it becomes incumbent on individual workers to invest in their own lower-emission infrastructure. As the pandemic has accelerated digitisation of processes in the workplace, it might also push the adoption of more sustainable and cleaner energy at home. 

During this test period of working from home, a common complaint has been workers missing their colleagues for both the stimulation and in-person collaboration, while others may prefer the distraction-free work environment. A survey revealed workers are keen to return to the physical office for at least part of the working week. Global Workforce Analytics estimates that working from home half the week can reduce emissions by 54 million tons every year.

As organisations prepare for the transition back to the office, be it even a portion of the workforce returning for part of the working week, the imperative to maintain the health and wellbeing of occupants is at an all-time high. Adjustments include increasing distanced seating between workers and adding panel walls to low-level partitions on shared desk spaces. Businesses are also exploring possibilities around setting up more small offices to help reduce long commutes. Separately, according to Dexus, owners of commercial buildings are also looking at ways to improve the office environment including cleaner air, outdoor spaces and introducing contactless technologies such as hands-free bathroom fixtures and automatic doors. 

As disastrous the pandemic has been, the changes adopted during this time will hopefully lead to lasting habits that can ultimately benefit the climate. 

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