Air pollution represents a major threat to human health. Fine particulate matter, particles less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations now exceed legal limits in cities from London to Beijing to Los Angeles. A World Health Organization study suggested that as many as 7m deaths globally every year can be linked to particulate pollution.
There’s a common misconception that poor air quality is an issue for low and middle-income countries. In reality, this is a health crisis that affects everyone. A 2017 Transport for London study attributed 40,000 early deaths each year to air pollution in the UK alone. Road transport is responsible for 80% of the pollution where PM2.5 and NO2 exceed legal limits.
Unsurprisingly, private vehicle use and rapid urbanisation are leading causes of air pollution. In 2017, transport was the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. That’s 27% of the country’s 468 million tonnes of CO². Over 25% of this travel was for commuting or business purposes.
Addressing the crisis requires change on every level of society. But there is one area we can make a collective change to now. To improve air quality in urban areas, we must rethink the office commute.
CHANGE MINDSETS TO PROTECT OUR PALE BLUE DOT
The Industrial Revolution created a business model that required people to leave their homes and farms to congregate in factories. Offices were a modern incarnation of this factory mindset, a space where workers went “to work” daily as cubicle cells replaced assembly line stations.
Despite huge advances in technology and communication, this factory mindset remains the norm in almost every industry. This ignores the new reality; with technology, we can connect and collaborate with people Anywhere. In fact, a 2018 Carbon Trust report revealed that over 40% of UK jobs are compatible with working Anywhere. Despite this, 65% of compatible companies don’t offer employees the opportunity to work from home. That’s not just a loss for companies, it’s at a massive cost to the environment.
A study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proved beyond doubt that NO2 concentrations were significantly higher during morning and evening rush hours compared to other times of the day. When those vehicles are taken off the road, the impact is felt across the world almost immediately. A recent report, published by international experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, found that cutting air pollution can reduce deaths within weeks.
In the US, employees working Anywhere saved 3.6m tons of commuting-related greenhouse gas emissions last year. That’s a total of 7.8bn fewer vehicle miles travelled and 530m fewer vehicle trips. It would take the planting of 91m trees to offset the same level of emissions, according to data from Global Workplace Analytics.
IMPROVE EMPLOYEE HEALTH WITH ANYWHERE WORK
We know vehicles contribute to air pollution. But for many, walking, cycling and taking public transport to work isn’t an option. Mobility issues that preclude active commuting, distance from the office and poor public transport; there are many reasons commuters opt for private vehicle travel. But all of these issues are based around the same fixed-factory mindset. Our need to be at a designated location at the same time every day almost guarantees congestion.
That’s why decentralising your business and enabling your team to work Anywhere is so advantageous. By enabling your team to collaborate digitally, you reduce the amount of time they have to travel in highly congested areas.
Not only does this reduce their exposure to excessive PM2.5 and NO2 levels, it can improve their mental health too. A study by VitalityHealth with the University of Cambridge found that commuters travelling less than half an hour gain an extra seven days’ worth of productive time each year compared to those commuting for 60 minutes or more. It also found that those commuting longer were 33% more likely to suffer from depression.
Exercise has been proven to decrease depression. A 2017 study by the University of New South Wales found that “people who reported doing no exercise at all had a 44% increased chance of developing depression compared to those exercising one to two hours a week.” But, in areas with high concentrations of PM2.5 and NO2, even active commuting can damage health.
But with fewer cars on the road, air quality improves. In turn, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases decreases. By breaking the cycle and changing commute-culture, active travel becomes more viable for everyone.
SHRINK OFFICE SPACE
Pollution isn’t limited to the vehicles we drive. Office buildings require large amounts of urban space. They contribute to light pollution and increase particulate matter concentrations in surrounding areas. Buildings also prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the ground. This, in turn, creates more rainwater runoff that increases flooding and contaminates nearby water sources.
Buildings account for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related CO₂ emissions, a UN 2017 Global Status Report found. Buildings were also responsible for 67% of electricity consumption and related (i.e. indirect) emissions in the UK in 2018.
Some people suggest concentrating a team in one place can be beneficial. Sharing lighting, heating and amenities within one space, they argue, uses less energy than employees working in individual home offices. But the majority of these employees still use energy to power their homes, even when they’re not there.
Plus, a study by Flexibility found that, in the average office, desks are actually used only 45-50% of the time. Likewise, the majority of offices also sit dormant 62% of the time according to a 2019 Gensler Research Institute study.
Many of these offices continue to consume power through heating, lighting and safety systems even when they’re not occupied. When companies allow their team members to commute digitally, offices are used less. With the freedom to scale down office space, businesses can cut down on unnecessary overheads. That means more revenue to invest in people, planet, purposes and profits.