There’s lots of speculation around what the post-pandemic world of work will look like and how we make sure we emerge ‘greener’. In fact, Tarkett’s latest research (May 2021) clearly shows that sustainability is a top three priority for employees across Europe and the USA, as businesses prepare to return to the office.

We sat down with workplace, and change strategist, Neil Usher, to discuss office ‘waste’ and get a fresh perspective on the back to the office debate and why working from home isn’t necessarily good from an environmental point of view.

Neil is a two time author and chief workplace strategist at GoSpace AI. 

Q) What is the waste associated with the office?

When people think about office waste, the first thing that usually comes to mind is tangible waste such as paper and plastic. The kind of waste people know to recycle.

Arguably, the biggest source of waste in the workplace - especially post-pandemic - is empty or underutilised space; so called intangible waste. The energy used to support, heat or cool, and illuminate these spaces, as well as the materials and energy needed to build the workspaces in the first place. 

Q) What model of working is better for the environment?

The majority of businesses seem to be advocating a so-called hybrid working model where the team splits their time between the office and the home. 

This may be beneficial for some individuals, giving them more flexibility. However, from an intangible waste point of view it presents a complex challenge that extends well beyond the conversation around simply allowing employees to work from home or not. 

There’s a seemingly compelling argument that allowing people to work from home is better for the environment, as it cuts down on commuting. However, the remote working revolution hinges on a digital workplace and, for instance, if we have an average of three hours ultra HD video calls per day over 260 workdays, each of us is responsible for creating a whopping 2.18 tonnes of CO2 per year. Interestingly, that is the equivalent of driving an average family car for 5,500 miles, which is very close to the average 5,980 miles annual UK commute.

And in the hybrid workplace, where some people work from home, some of the time, while others may go into the office more often, businesses may end up with a heavy mix of video calls - from the office. 

What’s more, our homes are often less energy efficient and insulated than offices, and the majority of people turn their heating off when they go to the office. The challenge is that with a hybrid workplace, the office is heated and cooled regardless of how many people are working there - a real waste of resources when underutilised. 

The remote working revolution hinges on a digital workplace and a one hour ultra HD video call creates 2.8 kg of CO2 per participant.
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Q) How can businesses ensure that offices are used efficiently?

Reevaluating the use of office space in the wake of the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to reinvent the way workplaces are used - looking at how design can impact the usability of a space and improve its environmental footprint.

To do so, the office space needs to be regularly reviewed to evaluate its ROI. Pre COVID-19 the average occupancy of offices was around 50%, due to the natural comings and goings of people. As employees adopt hybrid working models, it is likely that office occupancy could become even lower. There is also a significant amount of time outside of the working day, that offices sit completely unoccupied. 

Therefore, we can no longer build workspaces to accommodate all employees just in case they turn up. It is, however, a little more complex than just reducing office size and desk space. Instead, office use should be strategically scheduled to allow for optimal occupancy at all times.

Q) How do attitudes towards offices need to change?

It is clear that a shift in attitude towards the building of office spaces is critical in improving the environmental impact of the workplace. We are stuck in a perpetual cycle that needs to be broken. 

Space is currently speculatively built, based on outdated calculations of demand and with the development of more sustainable, environmentally conscious buildings, it is easy to forget that these developments are still harmful to the environment if they sit unoccupied for the majority of the time. 

These calculations need to adapt to take into account the occupancy and utilisation rates as well as alternative uses for the spaces outside of the working day. We are already seeing a shift in the design of hotels and other hospitality venues, allowing for a more hybrid and shared experience. 

Corporate environments can draw influence from this, viewing it as an exciting opportunity to shake up the old workplace model, and moving forward with brave new concepts that embrace collaboration in the post-pandemic working world.

We need to ensure that the office is evolving and adapting with the organisation and the environment.
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Fancy getting your hands on a free copy of Neil's book "Elemental Change"? Simply email to request & we'll send a copy out to the first 5 responses. 

Elemental Change, Neil Usher

To hear more from Neil Usher watch the Waste & The Circular Economy panel discussion.

Anette Timmer EMEA Marketing Director Workplace and SSHL, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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