As the working world continues to pivot toward the new normal, there is a healthy debate about the future of remote working. In April 2022, Newsweek reported that roughly 44% of companies surveyed are requiring staff to come into the workplace at least a few number of days per week, with the remainder of time at home. This is popularly called the “hybrid” model.
Let’s think about whether hybrid working is truly ‘sustainable’, taking advantage of the double entendre of that word, meaning both “will it last?” and “does it help from an ESG perspective?”
Firstly, we’ll examine the ESG angle, looking at each element separately.
- Reduced Travel
Both local commutation and long-haul business travel have been reduced materially since the start of the pandemic with the consequent reduction in carbon emissions. This reduced transportation volume will likely be sustained over time, as enhanced videoconferencing and other technology-enabled collaboration tools enable different ways of working.
- Smaller Office Premises
With more staff working from home at least a few days every week, office workplaces are being reconfigured with lower overall square footage and a consequent reduction in office energy consumption. The future workplace forfeits individual desks for shared workspaces and more room for in-office collaboration. While there will clearly be an offset in somewhat higher energy consumption at the homes of staff who are working remotely, there is likely a material overall reduction in GHG emissions and energy usage.
- Green Office Policies
While companies are looking at the footprint of their premises, they are concurrently re-evaluating office polices and business practices. Those who are now working to baseline their carbon footprint and drive to net zero are also looking at ancillary benefits like better waste management and a reduction in single-use plastics from take-away lunches versus repeat-use dishes and cutlery from staff homes.
- Social Equity Dilemma
There is a legitimate social concern about whether hybrid working is restricted to what were traditionally called “white-collar” jobs and simply not an option for essential workers, manufacturing and many service-oriented jobs. This causes clear issues with fairness and equity that are very difficult to resolve. That said, there are a number of societal benefits that result from hybrid working schemes where they are achievable.
- Work-Life Trade-offs
Remote working allows for improved flexibility and the potential for better work-life balance. Not only can staff can reduce their daily working hours by eliminating their commute time, they can more easily shift their working hours to accommodate child and elder care, fitness, charitable activities and other pursuits.
- Attracting Talent
When a hybrid environment allows employees to work only a limited number of days physically in the office, an entire new pool of talent has opportunities for employment with mutual benefits for staff and companies alike.
- Staff Wellness
There can be a societal offset caused by the loneliness and social isolation of remote working and the consequent risk of mental health issues for employees. However, companies are taking deliberate steps to create virtual opportunities for social interaction, as well as wellness programmes that can be accessed remotely and, when appropriate, confidentially.
- New Ways of Working
Going forward, companies are focused on revising their policies and associated business practices to support hybrid working. This includes what the protocols are for remote working since the conventional 9-5 workday may no longer be necessary or appropriate. That said, remote working is a privilege, not an entitlement and it should not be abused. Companies are working to establish clear guidelines.
- Risk and Compliance
The remote aspect of hybrid working reduces the ability for companies to confirm visually that staff are in full compliance with workplace policies. Clearly, it is critical to achieve an appropriate balance of oversight versus intrusion. Having the right control framework and associated metrics are essential – but beyond that, it is crucial for staff to be given the right training to confirm their awareness and full understanding of the policies that govern their behaviour.
Now, let’s ask whether the hybrid working model will last.
Earlier this year, Forbes shared a report from Advanced Workplace Associates stating that, after surveying nearly 10,000 people globally, a full 86% of employees want to work from home at least two days a week.
Obviously, there are many jobs where remote working is simply not possible, but the pandemic proved that technology tools are a key enabler for a large percentage of office jobs to be performed from home. There are legitimate concerns about possible loss of productivity, social isolation and the challenges of collaboration, but these risks are largely offset by allowing some level of remote working and thus offering the flexibility workers increasingly demand.
Ideally, the hybrid model offers an effective balance with workers having the benefit of regular face-to-face interaction on office days, while still preserving some at-home days to avoid the commute.
The bottom line …
Hybrid working is here to stay for those jobs and those companies with the technology tools and the discipline is make it work. As outlined above, there are material Sustainability / ESG benefits for both employees and the businesses they support.
This article was written by Diane Eshleman, Chief Sustainability Officer at Delta Capita.