The wellbeing and environmental effects of agile working

by David Bleicher, BSRIA Publications Manager

How many times in the last few months have you started a sentence with “When things get back to normal…”? For those of us whose work mostly involves tapping keys on a keyboard, “normal” implies commuting to an office building five days a week and staying there for eight or more hours a day.

When lockdown restrictions were imposed, things that were previously unthinkable, such as working from home every day, conducting all our meetings by video call, and not having easy access to a printer, became “the new normal”.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that changes to our work habits are possible – we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. Since lockdown, agile working has been high on companies’ agendas; but agile working has a broader scope than flexible working. It is defined as “bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task.”

Working from home with a cat

The triple bottom line

Agile working is indeed about much more than changing people’s working hours and locations. It’s about how people work – becoming focused on the outcome rather than the process. It’s about making the best use of technology to achieve those outcomes and it’s also about reconfiguring workplaces to better suit the new ways of working. But, when considering these outcomes, we should be looking further than the financial bottom line. The term triple bottom line is a framework that also brings social and environmental aspects into consideration.

How, when and where people work has a major impact on their wellbeing. The past few months have served as an unintentional experiment in the wellbeing effects of mass home working. Some people are less stressed and more productive working from home, providing they have regular contact with their colleagues. Other people – particularly those who don’t have a dedicated home working space – returned to their offices as soon as it was safe to do so. It depends on the individual’s preferences, personal circumstances and the nature of the work they do.

On the face of it, it would seem that increased working from home or from local coworking spaces would be a win-win for the environment. Less commuting means fewer CO2 emissions and less urban air pollution. But a study by global consulting firm and BSRIA member, WSP, found that year-round home working could result in an overall increase in CO2 emissions.

In short, it reduces office air conditioning energy use in the summer, but greatly increases home heating energy use in the winter – more than offsetting carbon savings from reduced commuting. Perhaps what this highlights most is just how inefficient the UK’s housing stock is. If we all lived in low energy homes with good level insulation and electric heat pumps, the equation would be very different. Perhaps a flexible solution allowing home working in summer and promoting office working in winter would be best from an environmental perspective.

A possible long-term effect of increased home working is that some people may move further away from their offices. For example, someone might choose to swap a five-days-a-week 20 km commute for a one-day-a-week 100 km commute. If that is also a move to a more suburban or rural location with more scattered development, less public transport and fewer amenities within walking distance, then (for that individual at least) there’ll be an increased carbon footprint. Not very agile.

Impact of technology

There’s another aspect that may not yet come high up in public awareness. Remote working is dependent on technology – in particular, the video calls that so many of us have become adept at over the past few months. All this processing burns up energy. The effect on home and office electricity bills may be negligible because the processing is done in the cloud. This isn’t some imaginary, nebulous place. The cloud is really a network of data centres around the world, churning data at lightning speed and, despite ongoing efforts, still generating a whole lot of CO2 emissions in the process. Videoconferencing definitely makes sense from both an economic and environmental perspective when it reduces the need for business travel, but if those people would “normally” be working in the same building, isn’t it just adding to global CO2 emissions?

We don’t yet know what “the new normal” is going to look like. Undoubtedly, we’re going to see more remote working, but responsible employers should weigh up the pros and cons economically, environmentally and socially. Terminating the lease on an office building may seem like a sensible cost saving, but can a workforce really be productive when they never meet face-to-face? Does an activity that seemingly reduces CO2 emissions actually just increase emissions elsewhere? Any agile working solution must take all of these things into account, and not attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to productivity, environmental good practice and employee wellbeing.

For more information on how BSRIA can support your business with energy advice and related services, visit us here: BSRIA Energy Advice.

Acoustics in the workplace – What’s the “new normal”?

Rebecca Hogg
Acoustic Consultant, BSRIA

Wooden blocks spelling 'new normal'

There is no denying global events this year have turned every aspect of our lives upside down, and as we all start to try and get back to normal while lockdown restrictions ease, we realise it is a “new normal”.

Workplaces have changed, some almost unrecognisable from before, and there is a myriad of requirements to consider beyond the essential health and safety measures. Occupant wellbeing was a prominent consideration prior to lockdown, and this included provision of a good acoustic environment, but how are new COVID-secure workplaces affecting the acoustic environment?

For many years there have been acoustic standards and guidelines on internal noise levels in offices, determining sound power levels of building plant, and predicting the sound absorption of materials. Well designed open-plan offices have allowed large groups of people to collaborate and communicate effectively, and noise regulations have ensured factories and construction sites operate without disturbing neighbours.

In recent months, the workplace has been turned on its head. Following government guidelines many people began working from home. Suddenly the familiar hum of the workplace was replaced in some instances with squabbling children or impatient pets, and if you live alone maybe unwelcome silence replaced your usual face-to-face conversations.

As people are gradually allowed to return to a place of work, new COVID-secure offices have changed the acoustic environment. The installation of screens, the partitioning of open plan spaces, wearing of face coverings, and a lower level of occupancy have created acoustic challenges. For example, speech intelligibility is affected by the reverberation time of a space. Fewer people and more reflective materials, such as plastic screens, will decrease the sound absorption and increase the reverberation time, resulting in poorer speech intelligibility.

Building services have been specified, installed, and commissioned for a particular set up of a workplace layout and building occupancy. If a space is divided into individual offices to allow for social distancing, then the building services provision also needs to be reconsidered. Changing the control settings of a system will have an impact on the internal noise levels and subsequently on levels of occupant annoyance.

Not everyone works in an office, so, what about situation in different workplaces? Factories, shops, and construction sites have been redesigned to allow for social distancing, and often operating hours have been extended to allow for shift patterns, potentially increasing noise nuisance for neighbours.

In these environments the noise levels are also often higher and communication between people can therefore be harder. People working further away from each other and wearing face coverings will inhibit successful communication and influence performance, and if someone must shout to be heard does this have the potential to spread virus droplets further? There should also be consideration of the highly overlooked 12 million people in the UK who suffer from some level of hearing loss. Being unable to lip read because someone is wearing a face covering, or unable to hear the conversation over a bad video conferencing link is incredibly frustrating and isolating.

The acoustic challenges within a COVID-secure workplace may seem overwhelming but there are several simple solutions. Firstly, identify noise sources in the workplace and maintain them appropriately to minimise background noise.

Something as simple as cleaning filters inside a fan coil unit can increase airflow and capacity, meaning the fan speed can be reduced and subsequently the noise level.

Secondly, examine acoustic specifications of any new products being installed – ask to see test reports and consider how a new product could influence the acoustic environment.

Finally, consider the occupants of your workplace and how they use the space. Tailoring the acoustic environment to the needs of the occupants can increase productivity, decrease annoyance and overall improve the wellbeing of all. The focus on workplace safety is paramount, but long-term considering other design parameters, such as the acoustic environment, will ensure workplaces not only survive but thrive.

BSRIA acoustic experts publish guidance, and support our members and clients with a range of acoustic testing solutions. Read more about our UKAS-accredited laboratory for acoustic testing to BS EN ISO 3741, BS EN 12102 and BS EN ISO 354 here.

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