How is hybrid work driving sustainability efforts?

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While not everyone, few would argue against the statement, “hybrid work is good for employees.” Cutting back on stressful commutes; having more autonomy over how, when and where you work; and achieving better work-life balance are all obvious benefits of being able to work from home occasionally. In fact, a recent survey by workspace provider IWG showed that hybrid workers eat better, sleep longer and exercise more than their peers who work from the office full-time.

But hybrid work hasn’t just been a boon for the health of employees; it can also help the planet. Working remotely two to four days per week cuts carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 11-29%, according to a study by Cornell University and Microsoft. Some of that reduction comes from factors outside the workplace, like decreased commuting. But many organizations have pinpointed hybrid’s impact on their own carbon footprint – and their bottom line – and are building on that progress to support sustainability initiatives.

Here’s a look at how hybrid work directly impacts sustainability, improves building efficiency and lowers costs.

Areas of focus for sustainability

Organizations’ sustainability efforts can come in many forms, including:

  • Preventing pollution
  • Conserving resources
  • Eliminating sending waste to landfills
  • Reducing waste
  • Striving for zero emissions
  • Pursuing third-party certification of sustainable practices and techniques

During a recent FM:Systems webinar, Drive Sustainability with Hybrid Work, attendees were asked which of these areas were the focus of their current sustainability efforts. Almost a third are attempting to reduce emissions to zero, while nearly a quarter cited waste reduction. Resource conservation came in third, at 14%. What this tells us is that companies’ sustainability initiatives are well aligned with those areas that are most impacted by hybrid work. Having fewer people in the office reduces the amount of energy expended on everything from lights to the microwave in the office kitchen. Less people also means less trash and, in terms of resource conservation, less water consumed in bathroom faucets and toilets.

Indeed, when asked during that same webinar how hybrid was driving their sustainability efforts, 37% cited the ability to use less space, while 26% highlighted reduced energy consumption. The high importance placed on these two approaches is noteworthy because, together, they drive the third component of hybrid’s advantages: cost savings.

Good for workers, good for the planet, good for the balance sheet

When you use less space, you save money – on everything from rent to utilities to cleaning supplies. We know that office space is the second-highest operational expense for businesses, so simply reducing the amount of this cost should be a win-win — for the organization and the planet. But the #1 expense for businesses is who uses the space – employees and visitors. So, optimizing an office for hybrid work goes beyond just knowing how much space you need to accommodate the number of employees or guests you have in-office on a given day or time. It requires understanding the interplay between the two.

For example, consolidating employees in one section of a larger area means you’re not lighting and ventilating empty space. That reduces costs and emissions and, if done correctly, can encourage collaboration, team-building and employee satisfaction. The wrong approach, like grouping employees together in a part of the office that’s notorious for poor indoor air quality, or that’s far from bathrooms or elevators, can drag on productivity and morale.

Not wasting electricity on lighting an empty room and not consolidating workers in less favorable parts of a building are easy concepts to grasp. Where things get more complicated is gaining the insights that will allow you to apply those concepts to specific spaces, buildings and portfolios.

You can’t manage what you don’t know

A recent Net Zero Tracker analysis of the world’s 2,000 largest companies found that over 50% have now set net zero emissions targets. With the built environment accounting for 42% of annual global CO2 emissions, reducing the carbon footprint of their workspaces is essential to meeting those targets. But, according to our research, 44% of facilities management professionals and business leaders lack accurate utilization data, while nearly a third lack accurate information about their space.

Deploying technology like utilization and environmental sensors can give facility managers and occupiers the insights they need to measure their progress toward net zero goals and pinpoint where initiatives are succeeding or falling behind. Tying these solutions into a workplace management system can allow stakeholders to make informed decisions about their space requirements and align workspaces with employee needs and preferences. Getting a handle on these issues can, in turn, allow companies to develop a hybrid model that works best for their organization.

Hybrid is a catalyst for needed change

The term “sustainability” was first used in the context of environmentalism over 50 years ago. Yet, in 2022, CO2 emissions hit an all-time high. If real estate stakeholders don’t start making substantial changes to how the built environment is managed, there will be no route to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Office occupiers and facility managers can do their part by taking the opportunity afforded by hybrid work to reduce the amount of space – and thus, resources – they use, while optimizing the space they do have. Doing so will not only result in reducing emissions, but lower costs, higher productivity and healthier, happier employees, as well.

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