The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly transformed working practices and cultures. Lockdowns and other restrictions forced organisations to adapt working routines, with 37% of the workforce working from home in 2020.

Andy Nolan, Director of Development and Sustainability at the University of Nottingham, shared with us some recent research into the environmental benefits of hybrid working.

University of Nottingham logo in blue text on a white background. To the left of the text is a white castle outline on a navy background.
A woman with light brown hair chatting online with her colleagues in a meeting as a part of hybrid working

There haven’t been many positives to have come from the Covid-19 pandemic but the adoption of more flexible ways of working has been held up as having the potential to redress some of the environmental impacts of commuting and 9-5 office use.

What are some of the benefits of hybrid working?

Hybrid working could be thought of as the best of both worlds: the social aspects of working physically alongside colleagues, plus the lifestyle benefits of working from home. But we only have one planet to live on. For people who now have a choice over how often they attend the workplace, it can be difficult to unpick how to work in the most sustainable way.

More than 8 in 10 workers who had to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic said they planned to hybrid work. The ONS reports that, since then, the proportion of workers hybrid working has risen from 13% in early February 2022 to 24% in May 2022. The percentage working exclusively from home has fallen from 22% to 14% in the same period. So, what does the future of homeworking look like?

Will agile working help or hinder the Government’s net-zero carbon targets?

Whilst some jobs can be delivered from home, many can’t, and because of that, there will always be a need for people to travel. But let’s focus on those that can choose – what will it mean?

Many businesses have supported hybrid and agile working, firstly to protect their health and follow the Government’s guidelines. Through that time it’s become evident that home working suits many – but not all. Of course, there are many pros and cons to homeworking. Avoiding the commute or staggering start times has provided time and cost benefits and reduced air pollution, particularly in cities. However, travelling to work exclusively has been the most common working pattern since national restrictions were lifted, with 46% of workers doing this in late April and early May 2022.

The proportion of workers hybrid working has risen slightly during spring 2022 – In March 2022, those who reported working from home in some capacity were asked why they had done so. The most common reason given was working from home being part of workers’ normal routine (62%), suggesting they have adopted homeworking long-term. Some workers may have already done so before the coronavirus pandemic.

The ONS study shows that lower earners were less likely to report hybrid working with more than a third (38%) of workers earning £40,000 or more hybrid worked between 27 April and 8 May 2022, meaning they both worked from home and travelled to work in the latest week.

What is the impact of hybrid working on heating?

The engineering consulting firm WSP suggests, based on a study of 200 of their UK-based employees, that working from home in summer and in the office over winter is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Their calculations suggest that having everyone heat their home throughout a chilly winter day produces more emissions than the combined emissions from everyone’s commute and the heating in the workplace.

WSP’s calculations show that working from home rather than the office in summer saves around 400kg of carbon emissions, the equivalent of 5% of a typical British commuter’s annual carbon footprint. This is because homeworking staff cut out their carbon emissions from their commute which would otherwise be greater than their home’s energy consumption.

This is a seasonal benefit, however. If an average employee worked at home all year round, they would produce 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year – around 80% more than an office worker.  This is because working from home in the winter means most heating systems in Britain heat the whole house which produces far more carbon emissions than what would be produced from the commute.

The University of Sussex study into hybrid working

A study, which looked at data on 269,000 individuals in England by the University of Sussex Business School study has found a permanent post-pandemic switch to hybrid working may not bring as many environmental benefits as first thought. The study over the period 2005 to 2019, before the pandemic, found that while remote workers tended to take fewer trips, they still travelled a greater distance each week than office workers.

Remote working could have “unintended consequences” which might offset any reduction in carbon emissions. “If you only commute a couple of days a week, you may choose to live further from your workplace. And if you work at home during the day, you may choose to take additional trips – perhaps to pick up some shopping or simply to get out of the house.

Professor Steven Sorrell, an energy and climate policy specialist in the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

The study also revealed that remote workers took around 8 per cent more non-work related trips each week, with infrequent remote workers travelling 9 miles further on average than office-based workers. While the largest proportion of these trips was by public transport, remote workers as a whole took 7 per cent more trips by car for non-work purposes, and irregular remote workers travelled an average of 4.4 miles further by car per week.

“A combination of residential relocation, induced non-work travel and the influence on the travel patterns of other household members offset the benefits of fewer commutes,” said Bernardo Caldarola, lead author of the study, who suggested changes to public policy could “encourage more sustainable residential and travel patterns” among remote workers.

What does this mean for the future of work and what will that mean for the environment?

It’s complicated as many factors will affect choices and behaviours. There are choices out there and employees are likely to choose employers who offer the best fit for them. This will likely lead to those employers investing more in the office spaces they provide to attract and retain staff. Equally, those employers who can offer remote work will appeal to and attract, staff without geographical constraints – a global marketplace for remote workers could be transformational.

Most employment contracts spell out the employee’s place of work and few make provision for agile or hybrid working in any explicit way. Perhaps it’s simply too early and things have yet to settle down.

Employers are faced with under-utilised office space, teams that are connected only by Teams or Zoom and struggling to shift to new ways of working.

Alongside this, it is likely the external factors of inflation, and rising energy costs, in particular, are influencing the choices of the employee. Forecourt petrol and diesel costs may incentivise home working, but rising gas and electricity prices are likely to encourage travelling to the office to avoid heating employee homes.

It’s unlikely this will all settle out soon but there are some hints at what we might expect. Homeworking is here to stay. However, it’s not clear whether the appeal of home working will be sustained or whether the benefits of returning to the office will prevail. The extended real estate of every business in the country into its employees’ homes is likely to increase carbon emissions as both homes and offices remain under-utilised. What we do know is that home working is, generally, having a positive impact on reducing the environmental impact of the commute but that poorly insulated homes aren’t suitable for homeworking, especially through the winter.

Meanwhile, the challenge and opportunity for businesses are to reduce the size of their estate and invest in making it a more attractive space for employees to use.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly transformed working practices and cultures. We heard from Andy Nolan, Director of Development and Sustainability at the University of Nottingham, shared with us some recent research into the environmental benefits of hybrid working.

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