With the onset of Covid-19, it became apparent that there would be some improvements around sustainability and climate change. With the general public fixed firmly indoors, we saw a drastic reduction of emissions and a lowering of carbon footprints worldwide. As well as an unexpected change to sustainability in the workplace, as many employees temporarily worked from the comfort of their own homes.
The news of crystal clear waters in the Venice canals and blue skies across New Dehli spread like wildfire. In northern India, the Himalayas were visible for the first time in a generation. And during the first lockdown, the levels of nitrogen dioxide from London’s streets decreased by an average of 31%, in contrast to the previous figures.
But with return to work plans in progress, and the concern of how this may reverse the environmental improvements, how has covid affected sustainability in the workplace?
How has the Pandemic Affected Sustainability in the Workplace?
When the world closed its doors, the sudden changes to our habitat became immediately apparent. It was estimated early on that Coronavirus was set to cause the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions.
In the first two months, the crisis temporarily cut CO2 emissions in China by 25%. However, in 2021 the levels have skyrocketed to 9% higher than pre-pandemic records, leaving a lot of people feeling defeated and worrying about their actions concerning climate change.
According to a study carried out this year by IBM ‘Institute for Business Value’, seeing such a drastic change to the environment has given consumers and workers the drive to engage in eco-friendly tactics. As well as boosting sustainability in the workplace.
The study went on to show that 9 out of 10 consumers over nine different countries detailed a change in view regarding sustainability and climate change, following the worldwide pandemic. These consumers displayed a willingness to contribute towards climate change, and choose eco-friendly products over products that could damage the planet further. Some even expressed the enthusiasm to take a small pay cut in favor of a sustainable future.
When so much progress has been made ecologically over the past year, there is also the added worry of our actions over the coming months reversing these developments. So, what is different about work-life post-pandemic, and how will this affect our ecosystem in the coming years?
Working From Home
It was inevitable that once people started working from the comfort of their own homes they wouldn’t want to return to the office. However, a lot of decisions made by corporations to migrate their office schedule to remote working have been down to ecological and economic factors.
During the pandemic, a substantial number of companies noticed that as well as being easier for staff, working from home has some astounding benefits to their financial situations, in addition to a positive impact on the environment.
With the reopening of workplace establishments, many businesses found that there were more benefits than disadvantages to home working. Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that there were many positive outcomes of remote work, which included a third of businesses seeing an increase in productivity, and 71% of companies reporting no loss in productivity during the pandemic.
How can working from home affect the environment?
Reduction in Greenhouse Emissions
With so many people working from the comfort of their own home during the pandemic or relying on furlough pay, the number of people commuting to and from work dropped dramatically. This had a tremendous impact on the environment and gave many companies food for thought when considering their own carbon footprints.
It was estimated by Global Workforce Analytics that if all office workers were to work remotely for half of their working week, greenhouse emissions would be cut by 54 million tons per year. This shows just how drastic the simple task of driving to work can be when considering the impact on our ecosystem.
As a result of this, and many other positive factors, many businesses have chosen to downsize their offices to allow more staff the opportunity to continue work home-based. Which benefited both their company, and the environment.
Reduced Consumption of Fossil Fuels
90% of fossil fuels are derived from petroleum products, which is an extortionate amount when people are commuting to and from work daily. During the 2020 lockdowns, the largest drop in fossil fuel consumption since the second world war was recorded; a decrease of 7%, which is a fall of 2.4GtCO2 compared to 2019.
Burning fossil fuels emits a variety of pollutants into the environment which contributes to climate change, and are harmful to our health. Emissions such as sulphur dioxide contribute to environmental factors such as acid rain, and the formation of harmful particulate matter.
Particulate matter is so hazardous to our health and the health of animals because they contain microscopic solids or liquid droplets that can be inhaled and cause health issues. Some of these particles are so small that they can reside deep in your lungs and even enter your bloodstream.
For a lot of companies, this drop in fossil fuel consumption, along with the financial benefits of home working was enough to sway them to downsize following the pandemic. Many companies have made the decision to allow staff to home-work, which has proven to be beneficial all-round.
Better Air Quality
Due to both a reduction in greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, we saw the benefit in the air around us. Roads that were usually busting with congestion were suddenly deserted, resulting in pollution levels dropping conclusively.
Poor air quality, both indoors and outdoors, is the silent killer of seven million per year worldwide. According to research by Colorado State University, lockdown reduced the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air by about 60% and 31% in 34 different countries.
Pollution and covid go hand in hand when it comes to the number of deaths. Due to covid being a respiratory illness, these two factors show a positive correlation, adding further risk of fatalities. It’s highly important that we keep the air clean to avoid further covid deaths, and companies introducing home-working is the first step in achieving this.
Reduced Use of Paper and Plastic
Offices are well known for their overwhelming daily use of paper and plastic, which are detrimental to the environment. In the digital age, companies have been thinking of ways to cut down their usage over the years. However, during lockdown, this happened naturally.
Digital methods of sharing information to colleagues were used, such as Teams and Zoom calls, which have continued into this year as a more eco-friendly and efficient way of office life.
As well as introducing remote work, a lot of companies who still need some staff onsite have relocated their offices to smaller, more efficient spaces. This introduces a greener way of working and increased sustainability in the workplace, as fewer employees are then required to make the daily commute to work.
Smaller spaces mean fewer bodies in one workplace, which prevents further spread of covid, as well as the following benefits:
- Financial benefits for the company due to lower rent payments
- Financial benefits in the company catering for less staff in the office
- Increased sustainability with less staff travelling to and from work
- Increased sustainability and waste management with the introduction of digital methods
- Increased energy consumption
- Increased productivity from home working, and less staff in the workplace
Covid-19 has forced businesses to re-think their approach to sustainable work, to join the fight against climate change.
Although a lot of businesses have been making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprints over the years, lockdown gave everyone that extra push to work together and improve sustainability in the workplace. In just a few short months, the world saw a substantial change in the amount of pollution, from clear skies in India, to clear waters in Venice.
While the figures have shot up again due to organisations re-opening their doors, we’re all very aware of what we can do if we put in the extra time and strive to make a difference. A small change to one workplace may not seem like much, but small changes add up to something significant.
Want to find out how your business can join the race against climate change? Take a leaf out of WWF’s book and check out their climate solutions for businesses