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Flexible working could help businesses achieve climate goals too

By Lisa Gallagher, co-founder and director of Flexibility Works

As the UN’s COP26 climate change conference gets underway in Glasgow, it’s impossible not to think and talk about the environment. For Scottish businesses, the summit is a firm reminder of their legal duty to be carbon net-zero by 2045. No easy feat, despite the seemingly-distant deadline.

Yet right now, many companies are focused on the fallout from the pandemic, particularly in terms of how, when and where people work. Enforced home working proved remote, hybrid and other forms of flexible working can deliver results for business, and improve people’s lives. But switching permanently to these new ways of working isn’t always easy, and many organisations are grappling with this transition right now.

Flexible working could help businesses achieve climate goals too

 

So the prospect of even more behavioural and procedural change to combat climate change, however laudable and downright necessary, may well be met with long inward sighs.

The good news is that it looks like increasing flexible working can also help companies reach environmental goals, as we have just argued in The Times.

We know that reducing travel is good for the environment, so increasing remote and hybrid working can play a significant part.

Scottish Water reduced business milage by 4.9 million miles during the pandemic. While we all know that work wasn’t ‘normal’ during Covid, Scottish Water says it expects to maintain a considerable portion of this reduction because of hybrid working, and more virtual training and events in future.

A report by mobile phone network O2 found that if full-time UK workers spent two days a week working from home, it would result in a 14.3 megatonne decrease in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions - more than the total emissions of Northern Ireland.

It’s not just about location either. Allowing people to flex the hours they work can reduce traffic at peak times. We know that slower moving traffic emits more pollution than when it’s free-flowing, so allowing people to start and finish outside the traditional 9am-5pm work day could help reduce carbon emissions too.

 

There are still big questions to be answered about the carbon impact of working from home. But early evidence suggests increases in carbon use for home energy and heating could be more than off-set by the carbon savings of less travelling.

Zero Waste Scotland, a not-for-profit supported by the Scottish Government, has now offered all 180 employees the chance to work remotely on a permanent basis, in part because of the positive impact this makes on the organisation’s carbon footprint.

Its analysis of the environmental impact of home working compared with travelling to, and working in, the office, found the organisation could cut emissions by two thirds if it continued home working and remote meetings.

We’ve also seen a rise in the number of flexible co-working sites where office space, meeting rooms and individual desks can be rented by remote workers. And there’s even an app called Swurf that signposts Scottish hospitality venues that can be booked and used as work spaces to remote and freelance ‘work surfers’. More than 1500 workers and 40 venues signed up in its first five months.

These new work spaces are appearing all over Scotland, not just in the biggest business centres. Comrie Workspace, situated in a Nissen hut on a former WW2 POW camp in rural Perthshire is a case in point. It opened in 2019 and is proving popular with locals as well as holiday visitors who need to get some work done too.

A study commissioned by commercial landlord Regus found flexible working centres can help generate carbon emission savings of 118 metric tonnes annually, mainly by reducing the distance people travel to work. Scotland’s Climate Assembly has also recommended local flexible workspaces for the same reason.

Our own research shows 75% of Scottish business leaders and senior managers see flexible working as an opportunity when it comes to tackling climate change as they believe flex could reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint.

The link between flexible working and carbon footprint is still developing. But it’s looking promising. And the evidence in favour of flexible working for people, and for businesses - through improved wellbeing, productivity, staff recruitment and retention and reduced sickness absence - is already well established.

The disruption wrought by Covid has prompted us to look again at how, when and where we work. We need to seize this opportunity, right now, to make work better for people, for businesses and, as COP26 reminds us, for the planet too.

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