Our Comment: Sustainable remote working and connectivity

In late February we were privileged to speak at the Microsoft ‘How green is your digital’ conference in London. In these days of lockdown, the role of technology in keeping us connected is fundamental (and we look back to that conference in London wistfully: the days of a buzzing networking lunch seem far away!). However, what are the environmental impacts of increased home working and greater digital connectivity, and how can it affect our health and well-being?

The positives

Some of the benefits of home working are obvious and significant. With less people traveling by car to work, there is less congestion and lower air pollution. We discussed this in Our Comment last month. There can be benefits to health too. By working at home, people can achieve a better work-life balance and avoid the stress and costs associated with travel, especially at peak times. If we can be more flexible in our working patterns we can often balance childcare and other commitments more successfully. Is there really a need for the typical 9-5 working day anymore?

Migrating to cloud service can have environmental benefits. ‘On demand’ cloud services (those used only when needed rather than being available all the time) can produce less carbon emissions than server estates as a result of less embodied carbon and the use of more energy efficient data centres. Collaboration on cloud-based software to produce documents can result in more efficient processes, quicker decision making, and reduce paper consumption. The enforced lockdown and need to embrace cloud options, virtual meetings and online collaboration may have broken down cultural resistance previously experienced by some organisations, leading to long-term behaviour change.

Improved connectivity will be seen through the roll out of 5G, with hubs in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton through the Urban Connected Communities Project, and in Worcestershire where a consortium is exploring is exploring ways to increase productivity by using robotics, big data analytics and augmented reality with 5G in a manufacturing setting.

The challenges

Whilst cloud services can result in lower emissions, this is reliant upon the behavior of users of the cloud. If your workforce does not normally need access to the cloud overnight, services can be configured not to be available during this time and thus save carbon emissions. You may want to think about asking the following questions of your cloud supplier:

  • Do they observe good energy management practices?
  • Are they certified?
  • Can they provide you with reports on your energy consumption?
  • Is the energy used by the supplier generated from renewable sources?
  • Are they ethical?

Many of us are improving our websites to more effectively get across information on our organisation virtually. But have we thought about the associated carbon emissions? Websites are powered by data centres which consume huge quantities of energy, as do their associated transmission networks. Streaming moving images results in carbon emissions, as can the choice of whether this is done in high or standard definition. By using compressed images, efficient file formats and lightweight fonts we can make our websites more carbon efficient.

And then there’s the impact of energy use and how seasonality can affect this. Working at home during the winter can  result in greater overall energy use as each individual heats their own home, often using systems which heat the whole house rather than just the office space. Often home heating systems are less sophisticated than office systems. Research by WSP suggests that if an average employee worked at home all year round, they would produce 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year more than an office worker.

The future

We’re hopeful that some of the positive impacts of lockdown will be maintained. That we’ll question whether we really need to drive, or worse still fly, to that business meeting. That sitting in queues of traffic during peak times with the engine idling will be a thing of the past. That employers will value the benefits of flexible working to those looking after children or other dependents.

We know that our stakeholders are embracing virtual connectivity and asking us to support them with virtual climate change training to support their staff.  We know that our stakeholders are keen to understand more about the sustainability aspects of remote working and are asking us for support on how to quantify and report on this. We’ve set up our new online forum for members to support even more opportunities to network and make connections.

This isn’t new for us. SWM supported a key national conference 10 years ago focused on ‘Working Towards a Smarter Future‘:

“I also want to congratulate everyone who has been involved in putting together this Working Towards a Smarter Future event. This collaboration between Business in the Community, Sustainability West Midlands, Smarter Working West Midlands, BT, Think Tank and my Mayday Network has provided us with an immense amount of food for thought about the future we all want, and how we can work together to achieve it” HRH The Prince of Wales, 09 September 2010.

We’re here to help if you need support in virtual engagement on climate change, or in considering the sustainability aspects of remote working.

Resources

In October 2019, Defra established the e-Sustainability Alliance with an ambition of making the UK’s IT sector more sustainable through partnership working with businesses, academia, NGO’s and policy makers.  They have published the guide ‘Helping businesses create a greener, more sustainable future through ICT’ which  covers areas such as procurement of ICT, the circular economy, ecological footprinting, and learning and development.

UKAuthority published their ‘How green is our digital‘ report in February 2020.

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