Remote working – being everywhere, going nowhere (and reducing carbon)

Like many of you, since lockdown, I’ve spent a lot more of my time at home and online. A recent report by Ofcom shows that in April, UK adults spent on average just over 4 hours online every day. It was 3.5 just 6 months ago. Many workplaces (those who can) have transformed their working practices overnight to enable home-working on a massive scale to ensure that their wheels keep turning while their employees stay at home.

Don’t worry, this isn’t my desk

While my employer hasn’t given me the tech to work remotely, I’m still taking advantage of opportunities online in my own time – free courses (check out Skills Development Scotland for an impressive range of learning opportunities), webinars, networking and virtual events. All within the highly commutable distance of my spare room.

My world has opened up

Before the world largely moved online, I would often have had to travel over an hour to attend in person. It would often mean I simply wouldn’t go. In February, I signed up to do an online training course precisely because I couldn’t commit the time for the travel. If you don’t live in a major city, have access to a car or lots of spare time, you’re often at a disadvantage.

Until now. Thanks to the large-scale move online, my world has opened up. And I’ve not strayed further than five miles from my house.

I’m hoping that employers’ investment in remote technology and employee familiarity with it will mean that gone are the days of terrible video-conference (VC) meetings portrayed in Tripp and Tyler‘s comedy videos. I used to work for an organisation where I would regularly be the only remote participant in meetings. In the absence of decent VC equipment, the only viable option for me was to FaceTime in on a phone passed from colleague to colleague round the table as they spoke.

Inevitably, people would talk over one another, or someone would put the phone down on the table and forget to pick it up until I reminded them I was supposed to be part of the meeting. It often made me feel not really part of the team or, worse, an interruption to the proceedings. There was a lot of me apologising for interrupting – either I couldn’t read the body language, find a natural pause, or catch the chair’s eye. At least on Zoom now, all participants are equal.

But is it good for the planet?

I read recently that VC meetings have less environmental impact than face-to-face. According to a 2014 study quoted in Ethical Consumer, VC can take at most 7% of the energy/carbon of an in-person meeting. Of course, generalisations are hard to make. Certain situations that require face-to-face interactions are hard to replicate online. But I’m sure we find a way to can cut out some of those unnecessary journeys to unnecessary meetings if there is another way.

It’s all about reducing the need to travel. And as with most green efforts, there needs to be a viable alternative to the norm.

VC is the fast becoming the viable alternative

I probably don’t need to convince anyone. Because it’s already happening. According to Scottish Government statistics in May, 47.8% of those who work are more likely to use conference and video calls for work compared to before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. A majority of Scots usually commute to work by car (68%), but a recent poll showed that 67% would be prepared to walk for part or all of their commute to work and 16% to cycle. That looks like progress when it comes to environmental behaviour change.

Alas, come winter…

Although home working brings the benefits of less commuting, there are risks that some of these environmental benefits are soon undermined as the winter draws in. Working from home in the summer is fine, but if home-working continues into the colder months, people will be working in cold, draughty homes heated by inefficient boilers powered by fossil fuels. An office shared by 20 people is likely to be more efficient than heating 20 separate homes. Then we have to talk about making our homes more efficient. But tackling this nation’s housing stock is a blog post for another day …

What YOU can do

  • Press your employer to invest in proper video-conferencing facilities if they don’t already.
  • Next time there’s a face to face meeting, ask if there is VC available. The more we ask, the more it’s likely to happen.

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