Hybrid work presents new opportunities in a number of areas, and that includes ways to become more climate-friendly.
Workplace offices and remote working arrangements almost always have room for improvement on environmental sustainability. HR and other company leaders can take action to make in-office work more sustainable and can encourage employees to follow some best practices at home so their remote work arrangements are more sustainable as well.
One major area where companies can make environmental improvements is office heating and cooling use. Employees can also examine their use of heating and air conditioning at home. Lighting and transportation are two other areas where companies and their employees can work to improve.
Here are some ideas for how HR and other company leaders can make the hybrid office more sustainable.
Revise office space needs
Many companies are now giving employees some flexibility in the amount of days workers are in the office.
The percentage of companies requiring their employees to be in the office full-time decreased from 49% to 42% for Q2 2023, according to "The Flex Report Q2 2023" by Scoop Technologies. If a company is embracing hybrid work permanently, HR and other company leaders should consider whether they truly need their pre-pandemic office space.
With hybrid working arrangements, the entire workforce is unlikely to be in the office at the same time, so companies can save energy in a number of ways by using a smaller office layout, said Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University. Less office space requires fewer lights as well as less heating and cooling.
HR leaders can help with this by arranging a hoteling desk arrangement or flex desk, in which employees who are in the office for the day take whichever desk is open.
"The use of flex space can make a lot of sense [for improving sustainability]," Gillingham said.
Cut back on heating or cooling
As many organizations follow hybrid work arrangements, heating or cooling an office and keeping the lights on is a waste of energy if no one is there.
Heating accounts for the single biggest energy end use for commercial buildings in America, according to the 2018 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"Match the office's energy demands to the actual behavior of the people using the office," Gillingham said.
For example, company leaders could decide to close the office entirely on Fridays, when most employees likely work from home. HR staff can tell employees that company leaders are hoping to save energy by doing so, which will likely win over employees who want to take action on climate change.
Employees can also save energy by taking actions such as turning up the thermostat by a few degrees in the summer, said Steve Sorrell, a professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex. Company leaders can share with employees the environmental impacts of cranking up their air conditioning and encourage employees who live in a house to only heat or cool necessary areas.
For example, if an employee is working in one room and other family members are out of the house, they can turn down the heat in other parts of the house.
In 2022, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Xerox PARC determined that air conditioning is the source of the equivalent of 1,950 million tons of carbon dioxide produced every year.
Reduce lighting energy use
Company leaders can make sure office lights are only in use when employees are there, which will save energy.
Some of the top electricity uses for commercial buildings were cooling and lighting, according to the 2018 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Installing automated energy-saving lights can help.
Movement sensors for lights can ensure lights are only on in an office building when employees are actively working, Sorrell said.
In addition, companies can explore IoT options for energy savings.
Encourage more sustainable commuting
If employees are driving into the office even part-time, using an electric car is better for the environment, as electric vehicles usually have a smaller carbon footprint than cars that use gas, according to the EPA.
Incentives can help spur electric car adoption, as well as other energy-saving efforts.
Company leaders can encourage employees to switch to electric cars and potentially provide subsidies for them to do so, Gillingham said. Employee carpools could also help reduce emissions.
HR leaders could help organize perks for employees who carpool to work, such as a drawing for a gift card once a month.