The silver lining in Covid-19’s challenge to our work culture

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Hargo Kalra, Business Intelligence Manager at ContactEngine looks at the positive impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses and the environment.

The problems presented by this pandemic have undoubtedly made this an historic period for our generation, and while there are plenty of negatives to go around, the potential for positivity should not be overlooked. A recent study in Nature from May 2020 states global CO2 emissions are down “17% in early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels” due to the lockdown, with nearly 50% of this coming from “changes in surface transport”

The true and long-term economic impact of Covid-19 (coronavirus) is currently unclear, though forecasts appear bleak. For example, an April 2020 University of Oxford report states “the economic fallout from this pandemic is likely to cripple even the most resilient of markets, threatening national and global growth”. However, given that we are already down the rabbit-hole, would this not be the ideal moment to challenge the status quo? Within this article, I briefly explore some of the concurrent benefits for employees, companies, as well as the bees and trees arising from Covid-19 that I recently wrote about in this whitepaper.

The daily commute – a relic to be discarded

Near universally, each one of us in the workforce has faced the challenges associated with commuting to our place of work. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, commute times in the United States reached a record high in 2018. Similarly, in the UK, average annual commute times have risen by 21 hours from a decade ago.  Numerous studies globally detail the negative impact of commute time on productivity. For instance, Ma and Ye (2019), find a positive relationship between commute time and absenteeism. Apart from the positive impact on the environment due to fewer cars on the roads, the company thus potentially benefits from an economic standpoint by allowing work from home or at least flexible work arrangements.  

By working from home and thus reducing the time of the commute (referring here specifically to non-active commutes), employees may be fresher and less stressed throughout the working day, thus leading to happier states of mind, which translates into higher productivity. 

Business flights – rocketing out of relevance

Business travel accounts for a large proportion of companies’ carbon footprint, particularly in the consulting sector. For instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates nearly 80% of its carbon footprint in 2019 related to business travel. Again the lockdown has provided a necessary shift of thinking for these employers to start using teleconferencing and digital methods of communication leading to a sharp fall in global aviation emissions. Overall, including both leisure and business travel, “aeroplane emissions fell by almost 1/3rd in March 2020, with experts predicting that it could take nearly three years for the industry as a whole to recover from this setback.  

If one can achieve similar, or even more productive, results by utilizing the glut of teleconferencing technology now thriving (one only has to look at Zoom’s stock price over the last six months), then its morally and fiscally irresponsible to fly for these meetings in person.  Put in the simplest of terms, taking into consideration that roughly 28-36K deaths per year in the UK due to “long-term air traffic pollution”, more than 1/3rd of which is related to commuting for work, even a marginal improvement here leads to lives being saved.

The flipside

Making the change in our daily way of work-life to more flexible working arrangements, i.e. the ability to work-from-home, will inevitably have butterfly effects, with certain experts predicting these activities may offset some of the gains made in healing the environment. More research is required to definitively state that this change in the working culture will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions given the variability in energy sources by different regions around the globe.

Detractors suggest that if employees have increased time to themselves, as well as the ability to work remotely, this may lead to increased leisure travel and thus negate the reduction in business travel. However, this seems a myopic view of the overall benefits, as research assessing the environmental impact of teleworking suggests that there is a high likelihood that the overall impact will be positive. According to this study, the largest impact comes from “reducing commuter travel and displacing office-related energy consumption”.  

In the short-term, no one is going to be coming out of this pandemic particularly rosy, and this generation will have seen the second large-scale recession/depression (and if it helps, we are good now, could we wait a while for the next one please?). However, putting on my idealist’s hat for a moment, maybe this sacrifice is necessary to right the ship for future generations. 

Much like the industrial revolution, the digital revolution will have its say in defining our work lives. It is conceded that not all industries can change to work-from-home culture; manufacturing being the prime example here (though 3D printing and advanced robotics may have a thing to say about that). It might even be simplistic to think that those who could switch to flexible working arrangements, could do so on a full workweek basis.  

We would be conceited, however, in ignoring the opportunity afforded in this moment of crisis to at least do what is within our remit to help the environment recover to a sustainable level because it is only in our interest (and the interest of future generations) to do so. The simultaneous and symbiotic benefits to employee, company, and the environment just represent the cherries on top of this particular cake.


covid-19, Business, The silver lining in Covid-19’s challenge to our work culture

Hargo Kalra

Hargo leads the Business Intelligence function at ContactEngine, with the basic remit to listen to what the numbers are saying on the ground and connect them to higher-level macroeconomic concepts and glean insights to improve the customer experience. Hargo relies on experience from the interwoven worlds of consulting and academia across three continents to attempt to make sense of the mountains of data available to us.