Is Flexible Working Bad or Good for the Planet, People and Productivity?

There’s something of a debate currently around working from home vs returning to “normal” ways of working, partly sparked by a recent BBC report https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-57339105 predicting a return to a five day week in the office.  In particular, can either the office or the home be held up as the ideal place to work from the perspective of the environment, wellbeing and productivity?  This article will try to take a balanced look at some of the issues and make some suggestions about how to approach the issue.

Let’s start with some context.  Pre-pandemic there were lots of organisations allowing people to work flexibly.  Some of which was allowing staff some days working away from the office, much of it was having about less rigid working hours and then there were some rare conversations about the possibility of measuring performance based on outcomes or added value rather than hours worked. 

Equally there were more traditional organisations that viewed attendance at a particular location between fixed hours as mandatory unless otherwise expressly authorised.  We can term these positions as being “liberal” and “conservative” workplace attitudes with applying any political connotations.

The overall trend, however, was increasingly liberal.  A new generation entering the workforce changed the demographic,  mobile devices proliferated, connectivity improved and flexible working technology generally became more widely adopted.  The pace of change was still relatively was slow until the pandemic struck and suddenly (almost) everyone was a remote worker.  Laptops were in short supply, Zoom became the most used verb in the business lexicon and people actually started using Teams in something like the way it was designed to work.

As vaccination passes the 50% mark for second “jabs” in the UK thoughts are increasingly turning to whether we continue as we are, return to a daily conservative commute or embrace new ways of working.  So let’s take a look at this using the classic Px3 lines of analysis: Planet, People and Productivity.

Planet

The environmental impacts of commuting are well documented, not just in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but also air quality and pollution.  Pre-pandemic nearly 70% of UK commuting was by car according to Dept of Transport statistics (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/945829/tsgb-2020.pdf), with an average round trip of an hour.  That’s a huge environmental burden, even with the slow rise in take up of electric vehicles.

On the counter-argument, only 27% of those commuting into London did so by car, demonstrating that if the costs are prohibitive and infrastructure supportive, behaviour will change.  There is also unease about the environmental impacts of large numbers working from home.  Large office spaces are designed and managed to be extremely energy efficient, whereas our individual homes are typically less so.

These objections don’t really stand up to scrutiny, however.  The prospect of significantly reducing the more than 120 billion vehicle miles used each year for commuting and travel for work with public transport is at best unlikely.  The process of replacing all those internal combustion engines with electric (or hydrogen) ones is also too slow to meet our objectives.

As to minimising the emissions from our properties, we already need to address the heating and insulation issues.  We will not reduce overall emissions if we heat our properties, drive to work (leaving them to cool down), consume energy at work, drive home and then re-heat back to a comfortable level.  These are not “either / or” discussions – we need sustainable solutions for the home and workplace.

People

There is also a visible divide with regards to how people feel about a the return to the workplace.  For some this is an age and hierarchy issue – an established generation of leaders and managers inflicting rigid and out-dated working practices on the young.

It’s an emotional topic too, with many stating that the “genie is out of the bottle” and that having had a taste of freedom they would actually rather resign than go back to a standard 9-5 on-premises working day https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-01/return-to-office-employees-are-quitting-instead-of-giving-up-work-from-home .

On the plus side for flexible working most people surveyed have felt that flexible working was a positive change for them, saving time, money and reducing their carbon footprint.  Crucially staff working flexibly feel more in control of their lives – better able to balance time spent on exercise, with family, pets and even household tasks that otherwise had to be delayed or missed entirely.

Flexible working also offers the prospect of greater “levelling up” for regions and individuals disadvantaged by a concentration of wealth and opportunity for those willing and able to work in city centres in general and London and the South East specifically.

On the negative side there seems to be no real end to the working day.  All too often time saved from the commute is being diverted back into the working longer hours rather than improving work-life balance. Stress from work no longer has the logical “off switch” of heading out of the office and leaving work behind. As usual technology is stepping in to offer some solutions to turn off the work communication https://www.mirror.co.uk/money/apple-soon-mute-late-night-24272717) but this is simply a filter, not a solution.

The opinion on how much time should be spent in the office makes the divide resurface as well, with 68% of senior execs expressing their wish for staff being present at least 3 days per week to maintain company culture.

Overall it is likely that the divide will continue, but perhaps in different forms.  It may well be that those with skills which are in demand in the emerging new economy will best be able to dictate flexible working packages. It’s also true that new challenger businesses will typically have less of a focus on HQ real estate and fixed working hours.

Productivity

Perhaps the most debated item is whether office working is better for productivity.  Proponents highlight improved teamwork, ad-hoc meetings, chance encounters and “water cooler” moments as significant contributors to innovation and creativity.

Opponents cite the time and cost wasted on travelling, the cost of centralised premises and infrastructure plus the impact on work-life balance when more than ten hours each day is spend working and commuting.

Of course for some the journey to work is also a time to reflect and catch up in a way that going to a desk after breakfast rarely achieves.  The reality of returning to peak-time cramped commuting conditions, gridlocked roads and the frustrations of cancellations and delays make this an unlikely idyl for most.

From a pure productivity perspective, flexible working has potential benefits through more engaged and motivated employees, potentially generating 43% more revenue and delivering 20% more performance than disengaged colleagues – https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/flexible-working-business-case_tcm18-52768.pdf

The majority of staff in surveys do report being at least as productive away from the office, with about a third reporting increases in effectiveness https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2015/10/20/30-uk-office-workers-are-more-productive-when-work.   

Flatlining productivity is a major issue that has affected the UK since the global financial crisis of 2008, neatly summarised by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at Bank of England and Chair of the Industrial Strategy Council in his foreword to “Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle –  https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/can-good-work-solve-the-productivity-puzzle/ – “working better should be our watchword, for therein lies the key to understanding and solving the UK’s productivity crisis”. 

Conclusion

It’s easy to say that the future of work is “hybrid” but that masks the complexity of what we need to consider.  There are good reasons to travel for work and to meet in person, but it’s also a fact that we need to simultaneously reduce our impact on the planet, improve staff engagement and well-being and increase overall productivity.  We will not achieve any of these things by returning to the conservative “status quo” of pre-pandemic 2019.

Hybrid working is likely to  combine HQs’, hub offices, flexible working hours, home working and (hopefully) a more nuanced approach to setting objectives and measuring productivity.  It’s crucial, however, that the organisation has real and up to date information on which to base planning and management activities.  This ranges from user experience, well-being and engagement data for workers to environmental impact assessments on premises, supply chain, IT and travel.

Px3’s recent analysis of ICT and staff travel has identified that some private, public and not-for-profit organisations are actively taking up the challenge.  By using technology to reduce energy consumption, extend device life and enable users to work flexibly and travel less the emissions savings can be considerable (typically up to 70%) and are helping organisations on the journey towards Net Zero.

As one of our customers recently fed back “We presented the Px3 findings at our last climate emergency meeting. It was the first time IT had such detailed information about our carbon footprint and a clear roadmap for the future.”

We need to celebrate this and build on these strategies and science-based metrics to properly identify where we are and where we can get to in order to meet our sustainability goals, our responsibility to the workforce and take advantage of the new opportunities that will arise.

(Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels)

About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3

Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies.  Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.

Ewen (LinkedIn Profile) can be contacted at ewen@px3.org.uk

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