When organisations grow, it is a cause for celebration. New staff members, new clients, and crowded offices! The obvious response is to move to a bigger place, upgrade the current space or make the leap from renting to buying an office! After all, staff productivity and healthy working places make a huge difference to businesses and their staff, as many tech companies confirm. But since the pandemic, and because of commitments to reducing impacts on climate, investing in offices and buildings is not the only viable solution.
The great shift
During the COVID-19 pandemic, like millions of other people who were not working in core services such as health care, transport or food retail, our Cynnal Cymru team (at that time just five people) left their shared office space unsure when they would come back. But as time went on, our team adapted to working online, and stopped printing material, travelling for meetings and to work, and ordering stationery for everyday use and events. As we got more used to working remotely, we also developed new habits and ways of working, which resulted in us creating new training products that addressed the newly emerging need for remote learning.
The new way of working spurred innovation and made us realise we can forego business travel, stop printing documents and buying office stationery, stop using business cards and give up commuting for good. We realised we can grow without having all the things every service-based organisation thought it needed.
With that came savings and a reduction in Scope 2 carbon emissions – that is, emissions associated with the use of electricity. Because we weren’t using an office, our emissions fell from 5.25 tonnes of CO2e to zero. We did not use gas for heating and we had no company cars, so this showed no change (we stayed at 0 tonnes of CO2e). There was also a change in some of the categories of emissions in Scope 3 (that is, emissions from everything but the use of gas and fuel (scope 1) and electricity (scope 2)). Our emissions from business travel went down from 1.9 tCO2e to zero, and likewise, staff commuting changed from 0.2 tCO2e to zero.
So far so good, but the team began to grow during the pandemic, which meant that if we returned to office working, we would need more space – and in the meantime, we needed new laptops. That alone meant our Scope 3 emissions increased from 2.96tCO2e before the pandemic to 3.84tCO2e – mainly due to the purchase of our new laptops! We were also still paying costs on our now-empty office, and although our bills were included in the rent, the space we occupied was heated by gas over which we had no control. If we were to continue this way, without making any changes, our emissions would continue to rise and we would not achieve our decarbonisation target. In fact, because of the increase in our staff numbers, we didn’t meet our target, but a change was clearly needed to our office situation. Our carbon footprint results for the post-pandemic year were not dissimilar to those of comparable organisations around the world, as during the pandemic, emissions were lower in areas such as business travel and commuting, but shifted to household energy use and logistics of goods. Moreover, many offices that were empty of workers during the pandemic were still operating, wasting the energy that powered them. The reductions seen during the pandemic turned out to be temporary, and in 2022, when the lockdown restrictions started to be phased out, the emissions rebounded.
To have an office or not? That was the question we had to grapple with. By the end of 2022, Cynnal Cymru had twelve staff members but only three office-loving regulars. We had begun travelling for work again, and meeting in person. Events were back on the agenda. All of this was great for staff morale, but not so great for the planet.
Keeping low-carbon lifestyles at home seemed to be the way forward. However, a study by the Office of National Statistics shows that it is not that straightforward. Working from home means that during a cold season, heating will be left on for a few more hours a day than usual. Electrical equipment such as laptops will be left on. Between 2019 and 2020, household emissions that were not related to travel, which is mostly heating emissions, increased by 1.5% from 80 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent to 81 million tonnes. While emissions from travel to work fell significantly, many households continued to purchase goods online, increasing the demand for home deliveries.
We were also mindful of the fact that if we were to become a fully remote organisation, we would need to address a mix of negative and positive impacts on staff and the organisation. According to a POST brief on the impact of remote and hybrid working on workers and organisations, working from home can increase well-being, self-reported productivity and work satisfaction, reduce work-life conflict, and introduce new ways to collaborate and more inclusive ways of working through the use of technology. However, the challenges can include increased work intensity, longer working hours, more distractions, potential health issues, decreased social interactions, fewer promotion and learning opportunities and an inability to disconnect from work.
All that being said, we took a leap of faith and decided to go for the third option – become a hybrid organisation with a combination of office-based and remote arrangements. We did not want to own or rent a whole office in which we had to store office items we do not use, but at the same time, we did not want to lose a place where we could meet with each other and our clients.
Hybrid’ working refers to a combination of office-remote arrangements.
Flexible working describes working arrangements that give people a degree of flexibility over where, when and how they work.
Remote working refers to a type of flexible working based on location, where workers work at home or a location other than the traditional workspace where the employer is based.
Source: POST Brief No.0049
We found a co-working space in a building that meets the BREEAM standard, meaning that energy and water saving measures are in place, waste is segregated into five streams, there are light and water sensors, and solar panels on the roof. In addition, the space we chose has secure bike sheds, storage for the things we absolutely need, plenty of spaces to relax, quiet booths for private meetings or focus time – and a sustainable cafeteria! In other words, lots of facilities that a modern and sustainable office space needs!
We chose to rent two permanent desks, with access to hot-desking, meeting rooms and events spaces, which removed the need for us to buy equipment such as desks, chairs, banners, or office stationery. It gives us flexibility and a quality standard which as a small organisation we would not have been able to afford in our own office. Staff who want to work from home can continue to do so, but we have the option of a co-working space for anyone who wants to come into the office to work, or when we have a staff get-together. From the perspective of our emissions, it was a great choice as we have staff members based across Wales and England, so the less commuting the better for their pockets and our decarbonisation plan.
We are only a few months into our new way of working, and the impact of this move, both negative and positive, has yet to become fully clear. In terms of our carbon emissions, our next carbon report will show whether it made a real difference because in 2022/2023 our staff numbers increased yet again!
One of the biggest benefits of moving to a co-working space is collaboration. We sit side by side with many organisations with whom we have worked over the years, as they too have made a move, and so a spontaneous chat over a coffee can lead to discussions that are hard to replicate remotely.
Unsure where to start? Here is what you can do
With the rise of flexible, remote and hybrid working, organisations need to rethink their strategy to ensure that it benefits people and the planet. Here are a few things to get you started:
1. Calculate emissions and compare emissions before and after the pandemic
A carbon report will give you a great understanding of what areas you need to tackle. If, for example, the report before the pandemic shows high emissions from your use of offices which are not often staffed, this is something that needs to be tackled first in your decarbonisation strategy.
2. Survey your staff
Given that every organisation is different, there is no one size fits all, but the trend in the UK and around the world points towards flexibility. One of the biggest benefits to offering staff an option to work from home is retaining and attracting talent. But, to understand what your team needs in terms of work arrangements, it is best to devote time to a conversation before any big decisions are made.
3. Learn from others
Whichever option you choose, it will have some impact on your organization, so have a chat with other organisations that had gone through the same process. Our Sustainability Adviser talked to IEMA about their decisions, experience, and the benefits of becoming a remote organisation, which helped her better understand the practicalities of a big shift. As noted earlier, just because there is no office, it does not mean that emissions vanish completely.
4. Adopt a circular mindset
Whether you forego an office altogether or downsize, remember to do it with as little impact as possible on the environment. In preparation from our move, we didn’t simply order a skip and chuck everything in! Instead, everything was sorted into four piles: things to give away, things to sell, things to keep, and things to recycle – which left us with a small pile of items that had to be disposed of.
5. Focus on staff and emissions from home
Whether you decide to go fully remote, hybrid, or offer greater flexibility, you need to think about staff engagement as a priority going forward. Consider using the saving you made from selling or moving out of your office to invest in better remote procedures (automation), staff activities and get to-togethers, as well as well-being offers. If you are downsizing or reducing office hours, consider investing in low-carbon solutions both at work and at home. Use this resource to understand the impact of homeworking.
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