Can we talk about the future of work without talking about the environmental impact of work? Certainly not.
The pandemic laid the foundation for a new awareness that might not have survived the return to normalcy if a new crisis had not occurred in its wake.
Today, whatever the reasons, the environment is at the heart of the concerns of businesses and employees.
And of course we’re going to look at that in terms of the forces shaping the future of work in 2022.
Many are astonished, and often rightly so, at the environmental hype caused by the pandemic, with talk of a “world after” and a return to a slower, more closed and less resource-intensive world.
However, if the causal link between the pandemic and the environment was anything but obvious, the link with the consequences of the pandemic was quite simple to perceive.
Indeed, when nobody goes to work anymore, when many activities and production sites are stopped and the logistic flows are cut, the emissions drop unquestionably and this even if there were other causes.
Of course, many of the good resolutions did not survive the return to normalcy: it is a normal logic in times of crisis: after the stupor and the good intentions comes the desire to turn the page and live again how before.
But here we are: as soon as we thought the pandemic was over, a different kind of crisis arrives, one whose impact on energy will be infinitely more important than that of the pandemic.
The opportunity to persist in good resolutions?
This is perhaps the only time that the employee’s life is so unhappy. While it usually allows us to bring into the business practices and tools of daily life “for the better”, here it is a matter of importing a kind of frugality that is imposed on most of us in our private lives.
At a time when prices are rising and everyone is being asked to be frugal and energy efficient, it would be very unfortunate if the business and office life were to deviate from these new rules and fail to set an example.
Of course there will be governmental pressure in this sense but one can suspect that public opinion will weigh at least as much (although you will see below that it is anything but obvious).
Last point: when we talk about digital, it is most often in their private use that employees have developed bad habits that they have imported into the business. Taking pictures of anything and everything, sharing vacation videos, believing they have infinite storage capacity and are neutral for the environment, making a video call for no reason.
For a long time, business tools and infrastructures were not at the level of what employees enjoyed at home. Then things “improved”, allowing everyone to be as digitally irresponsible at work as they are at home.
It is most often seen as the solution in this area because it allows a profound transformation of work practices.
Two examples? It has enabled the paperless office (at least for businesses that really want to go deep in this direction) and, as we saw during the pandemic, it allows a drastic reduction in travel, the impact of which was not difficult to measure.
But it has a flaw: it seems like an easy answer because it is easy to see its impact. On the other hand, if we see the visible problems that it makes disappear, we tend to easily close our eyes on the invisible problems that it creates.
The impact of technology on the environment would almost deserve a dedicated blog as the subject is so vast but I will try to illustrate it with very simple examples.
For a business, for public opinion, eliminating travel in favor of remote meetings sounds like a virtuous idea. In fact it’s not that simple.
Let’s start with something simple: public opinion has a totally biased view of the main sources of CO2 emissions.
Today, the culprit is easily identified as the airline industry, which contributes 4% of emissions. This may be a lot, but it is much less than textiles and clothing, which are not the subject of this post, but which account for 10% of emissions.
As for what is generally called “digital” it represented 4.5% of emissions in 2020 and 8% should be reached well before 2030. We are talking here about the construction of hardware (computers, smartphones) as well as the infrastructure of networks or the operation of servers.
We could quickly deduce that the climate terrorist is not the one who takes planes, but the fast-fashion enthusiast who binge-watches in front of Netflix, but let’s dig a little deeper.
• In terms of CO2 emissions, the 3.5 billion daily requests on Google correspond to 7 flights from Paris to New York
9 out of 10 employees increase their online storage space each month. 40% do not delete anything in a month. This shows how storage space is perceived as an unlimited resource that is so cheap that it is not preserved.
However, each GB emits 400gCO2e / year. And each new GB is added to the previous ones. So the environmental footprint is only increasing. Our work practices are on a trajectory contrary to the Society’s engagement in decarbonization.
Beyond the emissions themselves, it is the inertia of the behaviors that is worrying. Few people try to limit the disk space used.
• Every day about 350 billion emails are sent worldwide. 65% of these emails are spam. 15% would be advertising emails.
That’s about 50 billion advertising emails per day.
There are different figures on the carbon footprint of sending an email, which generally vary depending on the size of the attachments.
- 4 grams for an email without attachment
- 11 grams for an email with a 1 MB attachment.
- Up to 50 grams for a long email with attachments.
We are told that a newsletter “weighs” around 10g. Let’s take this figure.
That puts the weight of email marketing at 500 billion grams per day. 500,000 tons.
If these emails are not deleted immediately, then the cost of storing them throughout their lifetime must be added to this.
The icing on the cake: how many of these emails are opened? How many result in a ROI?
I agree that it is easy to cut into business travel and ban the private jets of the few executives who have them, but one day we should perhaps look at marketing practices, no?
• For orders of magnitude closer to what we are capable of achieving, the Ademe has conducted a study that estimates that each French employee receives an average of 58 professional e-mails per day and sends 33. These 33 daily e-mails with 1 MB attachments to two recipients generate annual emissions equivalent to 180 kg of CO2, or as much as 1,000 km driven by car.
According to this calculation, the e-mails of a business of 100 people would emit 18 tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 18 round trips between Paris and New York.
Again I found a lot of different figures on the subject and not all the experts agree to the gram, but in terms of order of magnitude it is quite telling.
Oh, one last thing. We were talking about the impact of all the useless information that we keep storing “in the cloud”, thinking that since we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Just as an example, in the middle of a drought, the Dutch were surprised to realize that the datacenter of one of the major players in the market consumed …. million liters of drinking water per year!
The evolution of society and economy
That there is a general awareness of the impact of our professional and personal activities is not in doubt. But I will go a bit less by talking about lifestyles and work styles.
A long time ago, Nicolas Negroponte told us that “Computing is no longer about computers. It is our way of life“. We can make this sentence say what we want, but when we talk about environment, it means that it is so much part of our lives, that its uses are so much the natural extension of our thoughts, that we don’t see it anymore, that we lose consciousness of its existence.
When you see a factory, you understand the stakes. When you see a fleet of company cars, you understand the stakes. When you use a smartphone, when you send an email, when you make a video conference, no. When you let your email box fill up, no. When you let your email inbox fill up, no. When we congratulate ourselves on the generous IT policy of a business that renews computers and phones every 2 or 3 years, no. Worse: we can have the impression that we are improving things when it is not always true.
One of my acquaintances who works for one of the leaders in the industry said to me a few years ago “we make crap… but so cool that no one stigmatizes us when at this rate we will soon pollute twice as much as the airlines“.
And then while I was writing this article I came across a study with surprising results.
In fact, in the 2022 edition of the famous IBM CEO Study, when executives are asked where the pressure to be more transparent about sustainability comes from, here is the surprising answer we get.
It is therefore not so obvious that the pressure comes from the customer or the employees, as is often thought. Surprising? Not so much. The employee does what he is asked to do according to the performance indicators assigned to him. As for the customer, his good intentions often fly in the face of the reality of the wallet.
So if there is pressure it seems to come more from those who hold the economic levers and this is not such a bad thing because they really have the means to impose their views.
Unless it means something else: the voice of the customer and the employee does not go up to the CEO…
The transformation of service activities and knowledge work
Not much to say on the subject except that if we talk about activities that require an intensive use of information technologies the equation between remote work and co-located work that provides an optimal environmental impact is not as obvious as one might think.
I am not going to stigmatize here certain forms of green washing of which everyone is well aware, but rather suggest that efforts are not necessarily going in the right direction.
Indeed, factories, cars and planes pollute. And attacking them offers another advantage: we deal with visible things that are easy to stigmatize.
But what about the rest, and especially digital? It weighs as much, if not more, and what is really being done on this side beyond the declarations of good intentions and charters of good practices?
We are “advised” to avoid large attachments, to delete useless emails etc. And what happens if employees do nothing? Well, nothing.
Travel is being eliminated, but who cares about the amount of emails sent by marketing?
Have we seen a CEO say to his marketing director “calm down with your mass emailings, for 14% of opening rate I cannot tolerate such harmful practices for the environment”.
It is important to realize that, except for a business whose activities require a lot of travel from employees (and even then…), digital weighs infinitely more on their carbon footprint than the travel of employees. But once you’ve banned travel, you’ve taken a symbolic measure while the climate bomb is being held in your computers and servers.
If I take the example of ADEME that a business of 100 people whose email usage corresponds to 18 round trips between Paris and New York, such a business can say “we are banning travel from now on and everything will be done by videoconference” and be very proud of it. Except that if it’s a small business that had a low usage of airplane by doing so it has taken a visible decision but with a minimal impact, without tackling the real problems.
If we want the future of work to be digitally responsible, it will mean much more virtuous individual practices in the use of collaborative tools and communication technologies. Do we send too many emails? Do we keep them wrongly? Do we abuse video when a simple voice call would suffice?
This will require trying to give a tangible and measured reality to many things that are invisible today.
This will question current and future marketing practices.
This will require us to think twice before seizing the new trend. 5G? Virtual reality? Metaverse?
This will require, above all, that efforts be focused on subjects that have an impact rather than on those that are visible, allow for easy communication but ultimately have only a limited impact. And this will be the most difficult because the use of digital, unlike the use of cars or planes, is unconscious and concerns absolutely everyone.