Working from Home Post-COVID-19: The Environmental Case

Zulqarnain Saddique • Published 12 March 2021

Covid-19 has changed the way we work whether that be for students or 9-5 office workers. The uptake of technology during these times has resulted out of necessity to maintain normality, but the impact of working from home has led to environmental improvements. What matters is how we implement these changes post-Covid. It remains to be seen whether the positive environmental impact from working from home is a mere blip or if it can be sustained in the long term.

Environmental impact

Whilst the figures pertaining to environmental change are hard to calculate during this period, as we are still in it, they will most likely be positive. The use of air travel, cars and trains has reduced significantly due to people working remotely, as well as government mandates restricting travel, and these working arrangements have benefitted the environment inadvertently.

The process of modernising traditional working arrangements has merely been sped up by the pandemic. Even pre-Covid, it was seen as inevitable by many analysts. It wasn’t a question of if but rather when. However, some modes of travel will see a resurgence as we return to normality. Thus figures seen for this period will need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The environmental effects are numerous if we are to examine temporary measures. The reduction in carbon-based travel, using less office space, and uptake in more environmentally friendly modes of transport are but a few examples of the positives of working from home.

A case made from productivity

As the vaccination drive gains momentum, the case for returning to work physically is being peddled. However, we need to consider the motives behind this drive. Surveys have found an increase in productivity of between 5% and 47% as a result of working from home; speaking factually there is to be a case that productivity will automatically see an upwards trend due to the reduction in commuting. An article written by the BBC in early April highlighted how workers were using time more efficiently by doing tasks more quickly. An ONS report revealed that a third of workers worked fewer hours than usual, but another third worked more hours than usual. However, the survey fails to define what counts as ‘work’. It seems workers are granted greater freedom in how they work, and this flexibility has led to efficient working.

Returning to Offices

In recent weeks we have seen stories plastered in newspapers and comments made by ministerial figures about returning to normalcy. This includes working arrangements for millions of Brits who are currently working from home. Whilst some roles understandably need to be conducted in a set environment away from home, others will mainly conduct the same work they have been doing at home but in a more formal setting.

However, beneath this drive back to the workplace is perhaps a more hard-nosed economic reason – the need to prop up industries that have suffered from employees working away from a designated place of work. Whether this be the real estate companies losing rents, high street food outlets, or the rail and car industries. To the average consumer, this type of expenditure was linked to working in an office environment and many have saved thousands from working at home and in doing so have contributed to a positive change in the environment.

The government presently see this as a significant blow to key industries and the back-to-work drive appears to be a way to plug a hole in the economy. It should be viewed as a benefit that these industries are lapsing and in their space new industries rise such as workplace technology.

There has also been a concentrated effort by some sections of the media to portray working from home in a depressing manner. It is true not everyone will enjoy the current arrangements but adapting to shared workspaces whilst maintaining a work from home policy will resolve this issue.

From the ONS statistics, it is evident that this as a generational issue, as older workers (50+) tended to partake less in home working. This figure should be viewed critically as it accounts for all those in employment and does not differentiate between service and manufacturing industries.

Concluding remarks

Whilst this remains a rather short blog the issues are more nuanced than presented here. Working from home from an environmental perspective has been largely positive and it remains to be seen whether efforts can be maintained. From an economic standpoint, the issue is more problematic as we need to balance the current arrangements with industries that are intertwined with ‘normal’ arrangements. The technological revolution of the office is to be welcomed if we consider all the effects, which include a reduction in costs for employees and employers, the environmental impact and the case made from productivity.