With pandemic restrictions gradually being lifted, reintegration to the office is now on the table, but is it for the best? Is there a balance to be found between sustainability and wellbeing that can give us the positives without the negatives?

With lockdown restrictions almost entirely removed and vaccination rates soaring, focus is gradually shifting away from COVID-19. The pressing issues we were facing pre-pandemic didn’t simply go away and are now taking centre stage once again. 

Several studies have highlighted the increase in awareness of sustainability and climate issues over the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile, lockdowns and isolation thrust employee wellbeing further into the spotlight. And as Covid-19 appears to be approaching its end, greater attention can be paid to these issues once again. 

Though many workers may have become accustomed to working from home, data shows that while being below pre-pandemic levels, renting office space is on the rise again. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, the office market in London city saw take-up increase 23%.

With sustainability and wellbeing now firmly on the agenda of employers across the UK, can they achieve their goals on both fronts?

Healthier, happier working

While working from home has been celebrated by some, it has been lamented by others. 

Eighty-seven per cent of workers have attested to being happier working from home, per a report by Microsoft and YouGov. And another survey from Finder.com found that 65% felt more productive at home over the course of the pandemic, and 83% suggesting they don’t need to be in an office to be productive.

Beyond that, there has been plenty of data portraying the impact of the pandemic on our mental health. The extended periods working from home, often alone, are having an impact on performance at work. The colour of that impact depends on who you talk to. A detailed study conducted by WeWork has shown that the ability to meet and brainstorm since working from home has dropped by an average of 11%. 

It’s this divide among the workforce that has driven the surge in hybrid working, whereby staff are given much of the flexibility they have enjoyed while working from home but also the social interaction that so many have craved and needed for their own wellbeing. 

Happier, healthier environment

There’s no doubt that when we were in lockdown we were doing less, and our impact on the environment has reduced. A study by Centre for Cities showed that almost completely across the board, cities in the UK were well below their predicted air pollution levels during lockdown.

There is clear evidence that less time spent in offices is better for the environment. A study in 2012 by EconPapers found that even just a 10% reduction in work hours could lead to a worthwhile decrease in ecological footprint, carbon footprint and CO2 emissions. 

Reducing emissions is key to keeping our world healthy, and taking a chunk out of the rush-hour traffic seems like a step in the right direction, something that’s already been achieved through lockdown. Working from home, even just one less day in the office a week could lead to an extremely positive impact on the environment and our carbon footprint, potentially decreasing it by 127 million tonnes by 2025. 

Balancing act

Put simply, bringing all employees back to the office full-time limits an organisation’s ability to improve sustainability and limit its carbon footprint in the fight against climate change. And yet switching to a full-time working from home model puts the wellbeing of some members of the team at risk. 

While hybrid working has already been highlighted as the perfect blend of productivity, flexibility and social interaction as firm’s try to balance business goals and staff wellbeing, it now appears that the model may be the ideal solution in the balance between sustainability and staff wellbeing.

 Here are some potential changes at the workplace that could benefit both ourselves and our world:

Reduction in work week 

Less office hours = less emissions. With the negligible negative impact on a businesses productivity, even going as far as to show trends in the opposite direction when working from home, this one seems like a no brainer. Instead of sanctioning all of us to the kitchen table instead of the cubicle though, a small decrease in hours per week, say 1 day, could lead to a significant reduction in our environmental footprint while still getting us in the office. 

Flexible working model

Not only would a flexible working model save businesses a great deal of money on unneeded office space, but a flexible working plan based on the hybrid model adopted by various businesses could allow employees to choose what’s best for them. 

Individuals who are parents, carers or suffer from mental health issues surrounding socialisation could thrive at work while they’re at home. The environmental impacts of this one would also be obvious, with less commuters, say, those parents driving their children to school then immediately heading to work, on the road. 

An e-commerce pivot

A lot of businesses saw the need to pivot during lockdown, the increased demand for online shopping and goods was a natural and expected result of us all being shacked up due to COVID-19. Coincidentally, it’s also been found e-commerce is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional shopping methods

With the data finding productivity and general happiness is overall increased when working from home, the ease found working from home with an e-commerce business, combined with the environmental benefits of a smaller commute and generally less cars on the road, could potentially be a step in the right direction.