Last reviewed 16 July 2021

As Government guidance around remote working begins to relax, the mass movement of workers returning to office spaces will inevitably increase travel and energy demands, as suggested by the UK Energy Statistics 2020, where the reported primary energy consumption fell by 24% in Q2 2020. Max Starr explains the unique opportunities and challenges businesses can create in order to set a new precedence in progressive sustainable practice.

The nature of uncertainty that the pandemic has brought to workplaces will invariably change the foreseeable dynamic of business operation and consideration for office space, commuting requirement and consumables used. The disruption mitigation strategies introduced by many industries have defined what could now be a new normal in terms of flexibility and full grasping of the concept of digitisation, and this is clearly evidenced by the Statistical Bulletin published in April 2020 by the ONS citing:

  • in April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home

  • of those who did some work from home, 86% did so as a result of the pandemic.

The spotlight now must turn to look at the current trends in energy usage and waste production, and what is to be expected as UK organisations transition into a post Covid-19 climate. Has Covid-19 catalysed green change in business, and can the future of business adapt to a growing focus on environmental impact?

Energy use and emissions

Energy use is best defined between how much energy is used by businesses and how businesses use energy. There is vast variability in energy needs dependant on industry and there are many characteristics that influence business energy consumption, whether the organisation be large scale energy intensive manufacturing or corner-shop newsagents.

Overwhelmingly, there are many more “micro” businesses than there are small, medium and large, however, large businesses consume 45% of non-domestic energy. This major difference is worth considering with the recent press release from the Prime Minister’s Office and the BEIS calling on all small businesses to lead the way in achieving net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. The campaign is to provide small businesses with access to climate consulting support and advice from large organisations including NatWest, Google, Scottish Power and BT.

Where to start

Practical steps taken towards being environmentally responsible where energy usage is to be considered does not immediately have to be monumental upheavals to normal business operations. A pragmatic step can be revisiting, measuring and reporting your greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), with the return of employees to offices in mind. This data collection exercise across specific aspects listed below can save money on resources use, generate new business, meet information demand of clients, and ultimately help understand your contribution to emissions.

  • Electricity/gas use

  • Waste Disposal/recycling facilities

  • Business travel

  • Company vehicles

  • Staff commuting.

Useful materials on guidance for GHG business emissions include: Defra’s Small Business User Guide on measuring GHG emissions, and for organisational level monitoring; The Carbon Trust “Carbon Footprinting Guide”, Defra’s Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting: Methodology Paper for Emission Factors, and for product carbon footprinting: ISO 14067:2018 Greenhouse gases — Carbon footprint of products — Requirements and guidelines for quantification. With these metrics calculated, the platform is laid to identify emission and resource intensive activities, and drive green decision making.

Remote working and digitisation

An immediate and effective energy use, and GHG emission mitigation strategy is reconsidering office space requirements, and more specifically engaging in furthering digitisation. This can be in the form of promoting a flexible/hybrid working model, thereby minimising on commuting needs, electricity use and heating of buildings. Collaborative workspaces can be offered to workers using temporary space for meetings or impromptu training.

Covid-19 tested national businesses’ ability to move large numbers of employees to remote working, and for some organisations almost entirely overnight. Recent holdback for cloud migration reported in a Capita survey found “61% of companies with more than 500 employees saw digital transformation as a priority”. However, the same research found “43% agree cloud migration was more costly than envisioned” (From Cloud Migration to Digital Innovation, Capita, 2019). As was evident, unfortunately, failure to digitise was preparation for failure, which cemented the notion that organisations must adapt or struggle to remain sustainable.

Where remote working is unsuitable, green travel to work initiatives should be considered as an alternative such as: cycle to work schemes, company season tickets for trains and trams, and even adopting electric vehicles for company pool vehicles, especially considering net zero targets. As a further addition to carbon footprint mitigation, reliable Carbon Offsetting of GHG emissions can be achieved with a PAS2060 certification to demonstrate verifiable climate commitment. (See our Energy Managemen topic.)


Recycling and waste streams struggled with direction before the pandemic, following Defra’s Consultation on Consistency in Household and Business Recycling Collections in England 2019 and subsequent impact assessment; it was clear loose requirements on local authority waste collections led to a variety of collection systems resulting in confusion on what can be recycled. The lack of external drivers is a main cause, disabling holistic business waste recycling.

New sources of single use products/plastics such as masks, Covid-19 testing kits and sanitisation products add to existing challenges for waste in the workplace, however there are progressive initiatives to consider adopting for more sustainable waste handling.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which you can read about here, is an environmental waste strategy which moves responsibility onto producers, pushing a polluter-pays principle thus incentivising recyclability and minimising impact of waste. Buying from EPR conscious producers encourages sustainable behaviour through the likes of deposit return schemes, and post-consumer treatment and reuse programmes.

Buying local more often could be the next step in minimising waste, by looking for ERP principles and returning to a milk-man philosophy of products delivered in non-perishable and zero-waste medium. Local economy often stimulates a circular cradle-to-death relationship with products and engaging with locally produced goods could provide greater insight into product and waste life cycle, exiting the linear relationship of the take-make-waste model.


Of the many methods businesses can promote sustainability, whether they be SMEs or large, a fundamental to consider is the wide scope of approaches. A main issue around addressing sustainability is variability and no one solution can fit all organisations. The process of fostering sustainable practices requires frank analysis of energy needs, resources available, emissions produced and commitment. There is the individual need to balance short- and long-term sustainability goals as these will inextricably be linked to financial and operational capacity, possibly more so than ever as pandemic recovery continues. There is a clear message from leading businesses and the Government that now is the time to move to a climate conscious greener future with the reopening of offices and organisations.