It’s not always true that every cloud has a silver lining. But it’s certainly fair to say there was one for the environment when it came to the Covid-19 pandemic, brought about by the sudden dramatic impact it had on the numbers of people across the world making the daily commute.
In those early days of 2020, as many millions changed their lives to work from home, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by a staggering 25%, according to research journal Nature Climate Change. Many of us remember the clarity of the air, probably best illustrated by pictures from cities in many countries and continents that were smog-free for the first time in decades.
The reasons aren’t hard to find when you look at the data. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates, one day of working from home can increase household energy consumption by between 7% and 23%. But the impact of this increase, the IEA finds, is more than wiped out when transport is taken into account, with the average one-way commute by car in the US being around 18km, in Europe 15km and in China 8km.
The IEA concludes that a year of working from home for a relatively modest one day a week delivers an overall energy saving from less commuting that is around four times larger than the increase in residential energy consumption.
The question for many is whether we can realistically sustain this amazing benefit as people return to a more ‘normal’ way of working.
From where I sit, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For ‘normal’ has changed. The pandemic has radically accelerated a workplace revolution that was already making steady progress for some years prior to 2020.
This is the shift to hybrid working, in which companies embrace the ‘hub-and-spoke’ workplace model by offering employees the flexibility to work in a satellite office or flexible workspace close to where they live. Critically, this enables them to get to work by foot or bicycle rather than by car, bus or train.
The reason for the popularity of the hybrid approach isn’t hard to find. The daily commute isn’t just the enemy of the environment; it’s also a massive cause of unnecessary expense and misery for billions of people forced to squeeze themselves on to overcrowded public transport or sit for hours in gridlocked traffic.
Even reducing the need to commute by two or three days a week can bring about immense improvements in wellbeing, not to mention revitalising communities as workers get to spend more time close to home.
So I for one wasn’t remotely surprised by the findings of recent IWG research. This showed that more than three quarters (76%) of office worker respondents see commuting less as an important way of reducing emissions, while two thirds believe it makes their work-life balance more sustainable.
It’s also great that an overwhelming majority (84%) of worker respondents recognise hybrid working as the best way to reduce commuting. Not only that, close to a third are already commuting two fewer days each week than before the pandemic, while 22% have managed to drop three days. Almost half told us they would sooner quit their job than go back to full-time commuting.
That’s all good to hear. And the good news continues, with 78% of business leaders saying their companies are committed to reducing their impact on the planet.
So, when you factor in the annual per-employee savings of more than £8,000 that recent Workplace Analytics research shows companies are achieving through hybrid working, surely every business everywhere must be aiming to make the shift?
Of course, much depends on the efficiency of the buildings companies occupy. JLL research shows that the real estate industry accounts for around 40% of global carbon emissions, highlighting that collectively, we all have an important role to play.
According to Cushman & Wakefield data, there is an added incentive for property owners to ensure their buildings are as green as possible. LEED-certified class-A office space generates a rental premium per square foot of 25.3% over non-certified buildings. This rises to an extraordinary 40.9% in the suburbs, meaning it pays financially as well as environmentally to ensure the buildings in a property portfolio are as advanced as possible.
Following Earth Day last Friday, it is a timely reminder that hybrid working offers us a highly effective means of progressing along our collective journey to net zero. It is only going to become more and more essential for businesses everywhere to understand as we collectively act to defuse the climate emergency.
Mark Dixon is founder and chief executive of IW