The positive impact on the environment as a result of many of us working remotely has been one of the most publicised benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns resulted in a demonstrable reduction in the levels of both carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions and a corresponding improvement in air quality, largely due to a decrease in air traffic, road use, oil refining and coal consumption.  

As parts of the planet begin to return to work and the wheels of industry start to turn, it is likely that these impacts will be reversed. However, the societal shift caused by the lockdown may help some of the benefits persist in the longer term.   

Working attitudes, behaviour and habits have changed over recent months, with more people favouring working from home rather than in the office. This change benefits both employees and employers.  Increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee churn are all a result of most staff working remotely and employers may also seize an opportunity to spend less on expensive and centrally located real estate to reduce operational costs. The unique situation of the pandemic has increased awareness of how working from home, meeting business objectives and being more sustainable can comfortably coexist.  

It stands to reason that with more people working remotely there will be fewer greenhouse gases clogging the atmosphere. It is hard to think of an easier, quicker or cheaper way to maintain business operations while significantly reducing our carbon footprint through reduced commuter travel. Increased use of teleconferences and video calls may also minimise our need to travel overseas, even after borders open again.   

For an employer, sustainable benefits go far beyond the obvious ones. Fewer people in the office means less consumption of office supplies. Frequent use of materials like plastic, paper, sticky notes, printer cartridges and coffee capsules will in turn mean less office waste in landfills. Homeworkers are also likely to be near their kitchen, which in turn will limit the use of plastic food containers, bags and cutlery. Additionally, a paperless office is more achievable from home as people are far less likely to print unnecessarily or waste supplies if they are on their own.   

It is hard to think of an easier, quicker or cheaper way to maintain business operations while significantly reducing our carbon footprint through reduced commuter travel. 

It is hard to qualify or quantify the environmental impact that an individual home worker has. As lockdown measures ease for some, there are significant numbers of employees who have returned to the office, either out of necessity or from desire for social or creative interaction. However, the difference now is that office materials and electricity (regulated office temperatures and automatic light switches are huge energy wasters) will continue to be used on-site in addition to remote workers consuming energy at home.   

The onus falls on the employer to manage this new normal. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices must evolve to not only protect the safety and efficacy of the workforce on-site but also those working remotely and in the broader community.  

Sustainable aspects of CSR measure an organisation’s performance from bricks and mortar to the supply chain, workforce and the impact of its consumption and products on the community. As businesses experiment with bringing people back to the workplace, a transformational approach to what offices look like, how they are used, and by whom will be paramount. This will involve a complete audit of what space is necessary, where offices are located, and how a collaborative and productive culture can be fostered. It may signal a move from city centres to the suburbs or even into the regions. Ride-sharing or public transport allowances may be encouraged rather than the provision of company cars or car allowances. Policy changes could allow for more official documents to be sent digitally and signed electronically. Investment in teleconferencing and video calling technology may eliminate the need for international travel.   

This level of organisational change will require strategic thinking based on fact. COVID-19 has given organisations an insight into how they can do more to support their employees and to be more environmentally and financially sustainable. Technological, behavioural and structural change is the consummate way to make positive environmental change. 

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