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.

Post Occupancy Evaluation: operational performance of a refurbished office building

This blog was written by Dr Michelle Agha-Hossein BEng (Hons), EngD, Sustainable Building Consultant for BSRIA's Sustainable Construction Group

This blog was written by Dr Michelle Agha-Hossein BEng (Hons), EngD,
Sustainable Building Consultant for BSRIA’s Sustainable Construction Group

My Engineering Doctorate study aimed to investigate how and to what extent office building refurbishment can help to improve occupants’ satisfaction, perceived productivity and well-being while optimising building’s operational performance.

A case study approach and a “diagnostic” post-occupancy evaluation style of framework were adopted in this study to evaluate the performance of a recently refurbished 5-storey office building in detail and find opportunities to reduce the gap, if any. The study divided the workplace’s environment into three categories: ‘physical conditions’, ‘interior use of space’ and ‘indoor facilities’. Employee surveys and interviews revealed that interior use of space was the most important aspect of the building influencing occupants’ perceived productivity, well-being and enjoyment at work (happiness) while the improvement of the indoor facilities had no significant effect.

The study also concluded that issues with the physical conditions (such as noise and temperature) causes negative effects on perceived productivity but improving this aspect to a higher level than it is required would not necessarily increase perceived productivity. In contrast, improving the interior use of space aspect of a workplace would increase employees’ perceived productivity proportionally.  These results, however, should be considered with cautious as employee’s satisfaction surveys and interviews revealed that employees’ levels of expectation might have affected their levels of satisfaction with their new work environment.  This could cause some bias in the results of buildings’ performance evaluation. A potential

Old working environment

Old working environment

solution to this issue is to measure occupants’ expectations for their future workplace at the design stage to try to fulfil these expectations as much as possible. How well the new work environment met occupants’ expectations is another factor that should be measured at the post-occupancy stage.

It was also noted that the occupants density at the building was low at the time of the study (17.7m2/person) and that the space was not fully and effectively utilised and more than 50% of the workstations were often not in use. The link between improving space utilisation and the building’s energy consumption as well as its occupants’ perceived

New working environment

New working environment

productivity and well-being merits further investigation. These results are important in the projects where increasing productivity is a key and the budget is limited.

In terms of energy performance and CO2 emission, it was revealed that the actual emission of the building was three times more than the design target. Most of the low cost opportunities identified to reduce the gap were related to the building management and control as well as occupants’ behaviour. I will be doing a webinar very soon on simple energy efficiency tips related to building management and control and occupants’ behaviour. Watch BSRIA’s website for more details about this webinar. 

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