Returning to the office sustainably


Throughout the pandemic, our way of working has significantly changed. As some companies are now thinking about returning to offices, we should seize this opportunity to instil sustainable working environments that address climate emergencies and future proof our businesses.

We now need to move away from thinking of sustainable and remote work policies as contingencies or nice-to-haves; they are now a necessity.

As a result of the pandemic, companies have had to adjust their work models and understand that the future of work may differ from what was pre-pandemic. As lockdowns ease, we now have the opportunity to reimagine our workspaces and company cultures.

As a result of decreased travelling and consumption throughout the pandemic, carbon emissions have fallen, and air quality has improved. Digitalisation has spread across all industries, which has helped maintain efficiency and replicate some essential elements of in-person communication. Some of us have found that remote working provides flexibility and empowerment; others can’t wait to return to offices.


It is now coming close to the time when we need to make intelligent decisions about defining and executing a sustainable return to work. To do so sustainably, we need to consider our teams, business cultures and the environment.


Some have enjoyed the benefits of remote working, such as increased flexibility and autonomy, no commuting, and spending more time with loved ones or focusing on personal projects. Others have found that their work-life balances have suffered as they feel pressured to be “online” all of the time.

While some companies have seen increased employee productivity and an opportunity to use office space funds for other activities, others are concerned about the impact that remote working has had on company culture, career progression opportunities and employee collaboration. They worry that the loss of in-person interactions will eventually result in a decrease in creativity.

Many tech companies have found that remote working has increased productivity, improved employee inclusion and work-life balance. In the past, tech companies have often found it challenging to recruit suitable candidates because of talent shortage. They are now happy to have access to global talent communities. The industry is undoubtedly better equipped and more comfortable with remote working. Other industries highlight that tech may have a vested interest in distanced working as it allows for the development, testing and scaling of software products replicating in-person communication and processes.

Leaders from the financial service companies, namely Goldman Sachs and Barclays, have expressed concern over remote working and would like their employees to come back to offices as soon as it is safe to do so. Some tech companies that had previously made statements that they would like remote work to continue after the pandemic have now said that they will adopt hybrid models, which would offer employees flexibility and independence while maintaining necessary company structures.

In the last year, organisations that have done well have been said to have benefited from “cultural momentum” – those with strong internal cultures that already had distributed operating models in place before the pandemic continued to perform well. This implies that if they converted to a permanent remote work model, they would struggle to maintain their open cultures if the company culture is not recharged and refreshed in person.


What do companies need to do to ensure that whichever model they decide to adopt – hybrid, remote or in-office it is sustainable?


When thinking about sustainably returning to the office, multiple factors should be considered – the company’s physical and digital infrastructure, policy, talent and community.


Physical infrastructure


To promote sustainable work environments, we need to rethink and rebuild them. The future work environment needs to be green, designed for safe in-person interaction and compatible with a circular economy. Companies should also consider integrating technology into spaces, which would help track energy usage, space utilisation and provide key sustainability insights. To reimagine office spaces, companies can work with experts, like Incube, creating sustainable, IOT enabled reconfigurable workspaces.

As a result of distance working, business carbon footprints have naturally decreased. Many now think that continuing to work from home is an environmentally friendly decision. The reality is that while remote work reduces a company’s office related emissions, it does not eliminate them but shifts them to employees’ homes.

Watershed has created a calculator to help companies in London, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Toronto, decrease their carbon footprints. The calculator incorporates local electric grid emissions and average household energy consumption data to then allow users to input data such as company size, travel policy and provides them with an estimate of office emissions. Companies can then tweak variables to minimise carbon footprints.

What has most certainly had a positive impact on the environment is that we have commuted less. Governments and transport companies are already working on laying the foundation for our transition to net-zero transportation. To ensure a smooth transition, companies and the public sector need to cooperate to enable safe, sustainable commutes. For instance, The Global New Mobility Coalition encourages companies to partner with cities to incentivise a sustainable return to work.

During the pandemic, many cities have created incentives for sustainable travel, such as extended cycling routes. To encourage employees to travel green, employers could expand their cycle to work schemes. Moreover, instead of bundling up car expenses in compensation packages, companies can offer travel passes or company bikes to staff. If driving is a requirement of the job, firms can provide electric or hybrid company cars.

If companies decide to pursue a remote work model, they need to think about helping employees decrease their home emissions. They can do so by reimbursing employees for the cost of green utilities.

To cut our business carbon emissions, we need to collaborate with the public sector to define creative, balanced and sustainable strategies.


Digital Infrastructure


Rethinking a company’s digital infrastructure is just as important as reimagining its physical environment. Many of the remote working challenges that companies have faced could have been avoided if robust digital infrastructures were in place.

Since the pandemic, we have implemented video conferencing and messaging software, project management tools that track assignments and productivity, and many other tools. While this has helped remote work in the short term, we need to move beyond these tools to create sustainable digital infrastructures which enhance employee experience and manage output. Adopting future-proof digital infrastructures is as essential to companies adopting hybrid models as it is to those remaining remote, as it will allow for maximum collaboration between remote and in-person employees. Many companies are working on helping companies future proof their digital infrastructures. The London-based company Qatalog, for instance, builds work hubs that organise all company ingredients of collaboration.


Remote Work Policies


In the past, remote work policies were often considered a bonus or a contingency. The past year in lockdown has shown us that they are a necessity. Irrespective of the work model that a company chooses to adopt – hybrid, flexible or in-office, remote policies ensure that teams have the information and structure they need to be successful and empowered.

According to a study of the Workforce of the Future by Cisco, 87% of people want to know when and how they can use office spaces, allowing them to blend remote and office-based work. Suppose companies decide to adopt a hybrid work model, clearly laying out information in a work policy would empower employees to work efficiently irrespective of whether they are in the office or not. Alternatively, if companies decide to move on to a fully in-office model, having a remote policy in place will help mitigate future uncertainties.


Talent and Community


Employers need to recognise that employees’ experiences of working from home have been different. Moreover, over the past year, employees have had the opportunity to test new models of working and identify which ones foster their productivity. Returning to the office or adjusting to a fully remote or hybrid model will likely be challenging for many. Employers need to ensure that they have open conversations and collaborate with employees to define the suitable future work model for the company.

For some, working remotely and thus not being in a group work environment is more challenging than for others and requires a lot of sustainability and strength. Companies thinking about adopting hybrid or fully remote work models will need to find ways to engage employees to ensure that they do not feel isolated when working from home. Moreover, as new hires join businesses, it becomes vital to engage them through training and onboarding programmes.

Research has shown that soft skill job training is as vital as continuous development training. Skills such as communication, empathy and discipline can be more challenged in a remote work environment. Employers may need to start thinking about providing soft skill training courses, not only to new joiners but to everyone, as this can help foster open and collaborative work cultures.

As a result of the pandemic, we have been given a blank slate to rethink our ways of working. Let’s use this opportunity to create collaborative, sustainable and inclusive future work environments.


Stay tuned; we will soon be holding an event on returning to the office sustainably.