The DNA of Work

Swiss cheese buildings

August 31, 2021 Season 1 Episode 8
The DNA of Work
Swiss cheese buildings
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Did the IPCC climate assessment report shock you? Are you wondering what your organisation can do to address carbon emissions and reduce your impact on the planet? There is undoubtedly an emergency but there are things we can do. 

In the face of new ways of working, with less people in the office, organisations are thinking about and planning for different levels of occupancy and trying to balance the ability to be flexible and responsive, with the need for some certainty around the requirements of those coming into the office. People are wondering how to make sure they can be with the people they want to collaborate with, if they decide to make the journey to the office.

There are tools that can be used to help organisations manage the accommodation demand and ways to measure carbon emissions in granular detail, so that real reductions can be identified and delivered – rather than using averages and/or using carbon offsets.

Just as the pandemic has inspired us to think differently about how we work, the climate emergency could also be the jolt we need to change the carbon footprint of our businesses.

Andrew Mawson, AWA’s Founder and MD shares his perspectives about models being explored by organisations in the UK market and elsewhere, and the moral conundrum of operating half empty buildings that generate carbon, along with the emissions generated through commuting and business travel. Should we be thinking about sharing buildings and operating a 7 day week, adopting different working patterns that embrace the weekend, rather than building more office space? 


AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

 AWA Guest details:  

AWA report: I don’t like Mondays (or Fridays) 



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: David Smalley 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: c

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00:00:00 Chris Hood

If we applied ourselves to lowering carbon footprints as a collective goal for an organization, it would inspire us to think about things in a different way, which would have great outcomes not just for the climate, but for also how we do business.

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.

00:00:44 Karen Plum

I expect that, like me, you were shocked by the headlines that came from the August IPCC climate assessment report. They said that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, with some trends now irreversible, at least during the current time frame. That said, there are things we can do, and I wanted to explore how organizations can affect changes by looking at their working patterns, how they use office space, and how much of it they need. 

So I invited a panel of experts to chat with me. They're all working with clients to help them address space and ways of working that would be better for individuals, teams, organizations, and the planet -bringing sustainability fully onto the business agenda.

They are two of my AWA colleagues, Chris Hood and William Buller and we're joined by Raj Krishnamurthy, CEO of workplace technology solutions company Freespace and Pierre-Louis Godin, Sustainable Business Manager at Emitwise, dedicated to helping accelerate the transition to a net zero carbon world.

I started off by asking Chris to summarize where we are after 18 months of virtual working as organizations consider and plan for different models of a hybrid future.

00:02:03 Chris Hood

I would say over the last 18 months we've all experienced a different world, one where we've tried something very different in the way we work, and we've established our own preferences and thoughts about how we work most productively. And I think there's a sense that as we return to a different situation where we enjoy being together more, some of those preferences and choices will continue to exist. Now, the challenge with that from an organizational perspective is that becomes a completely random process and some organization of that is required in order for the organization to benefit. So there's a sense that teams need to also engage in this umbrella of choice and self-determination of how they work best together.

Now the problem with that is that it's possible that the choices that separate teams might make are counterproductive from an organizational standpoint, because you know, if everybody chooses to come in on Wednesday, leaving Monday and Friday pretty much empty, two things have happened. One is that anybody who comes in on Monday and Friday are disappointed because the people they want to engage with may not be there. And secondly, you have an asset that's not particularly well used.

Now I think what's happened with the release of the United Nations Climate Change Report is another reason for this organization to occur for us to think more carefully about space as a very treasured resource, and how can we maximize its benefit? The notion of trying to understand togetherness in a workplace, trying to organize it in ways that allow for teams to work effectively together and to work with other teams and so on - that's really important.

And then to do so there's a call here for doing it the most efficient way possible. In other words, what's the minimum viable workplace? Why is that important? It's the smallest footprint and that footprint is the beginnings of a response to climate change.

If we could all think more carefully about the treasured resource that office space is, then we begin to think about reducing the carbon footprint of organizations, reducing the carbon footprint of people traveling to work so that there's something in this for everyone. There's something in it for the planet. There's something in it for individuals, and there's something in it for the organization itself in terms of the value of being organized and sort of scheduling people's time and togetherness.

00:05:04 Karen Plum

It seems to me that much in the way that the pandemic has accelerated the move to remote working / virtual working, this focus on where people are is also accelerating the consideration of how we use office space. We all know that office space has been poorly used for decades. We know from all of our utilization studies that the typical number of desks used on an average day is probably 50 - 60% - office space was never used that efficiently.

And I'd like to bring Raj in here because Raj’s business is all about trying to understand and help organizations manage the use of space. Raj, what are you seeing in terms of the clients that you're working with? Are they starting to think about this in a much more sustained way now - whereas perhaps they might have been just looking to right size their offices, are they now looking to use the data to help them to reduce?

00:06:10 Raj Krishnamurthy

You're absolutely right, clients are now looking at how they can think about a longer term sustained use of the space and as you also mentioned, our focus pre pandemic was really helping optimization of spaces by continuously monitoring them. We have sensor technology that helps to do that, but obviously what was realized even pre pandemic that the occupancy of 50 - 60% was not very good. 

Things have been brought to very sharp focus post pandemic and with the climate change, kind of awareness generally being generated, is that both what we are seeing the likelihood with hybrid working that that utilization, the peak utilization, will also go down – possibly - and also the fact that you are keeping all these buildings kind of heated and ventilated or air conditioned and climate controlled means that you are spending a lot of energy into doing that. So it's got into very sharp focus - this imperative to do something about it.

Now, when we talk about intent for people to work in different ways, it is very clear that we are going to have more distributed teams wanting to decide how they want to work and use the office space - that precious resource that they have effectively, and for that what we need is for people to contribute their calendars, their times, their schedules, to understand how each other's schedule can come together so that that space can be used.

So in order to create that, what becomes important is to create the space for people to be able to do that using technology. But with everything in technology, data and schedules and personal information obviously starts bringing us several things that needs to be addressed before you can get people to contribute.

Privacy becomes important. Permissions and having consent becomes important. Simplicity becomes very important, because why would I do something if it's not simple? All these things are critical in helping people participate with each other to share their information.

This technology helps people not only plan their days of coming into work in a very simple fashion, but also use the technology to collaborate with their colleagues to see when they should come to work so that they can get an optimal experience from the workplace setting itself. We have successfully deployed this and we are enabling people to come in on a planned fashion from an employee point of view. And from an FM point of view, what we are seeing is that future forecasting of when people want to come in is also now guiding as to how the space can be made available for uniform distribution of occupancy. Scheduling people to use the space more effectively, showing people where available spaces is so that they can plan to be together as a team in that space, getting much richer experiences from shared use of space. And that planning essentially brings down the overall usage of total amount of space that is needed, thereby allowing businesses to start planning as to how they can optimize actual amount of space needed to satisfy that outcome and therefore driving the opportunity to reduce the amount of footprint that you have in your real estate as well.

00:09:31 Karen Plum

So essentially, you're making the space much more fluid in terms of - if I come into the office for a day this week and a day next week, I might be in a very different part of the building, yes?

00:09:43 Raj Krishnamurthy

Potentially yes, and also it all depends on work styles that people are used to and work styles that they are expecting. And it changes from region to region, from function to function, from business structure to business structure. I mean I can give you examples of you know shift management systems in India that are being optimized in a very different way compared to collaborative working situations in the UK or the US. So these are all contextual. These are all very specific to how space can be used, but everywhere you are having the same impact, people are adjusting to this new reality that you may not be needed to go in every day of the week, Monday to Friday, and people are adjusting to this reality.

00:10:28 Chris Hood

Can I just add to that - that I think what Raj said was a very important statement that we tend to plan space thinking we've reached perfection, that we really understand need and that's just a moment in time. Life is constantly changing, the people are changing, the business is changing. And in a sense, what we're doing really is we have an entity - it's fixed - more or less fixed - but we need to manage to it. It's a different attitude, it's - we've got what we've got in terms of fixed infrastructure, now how can we make the best of it? And that's very different process than trying to design something which inherently will be fixed to a process that's consistently changing.

00:11:15 Karen Plum

Thanks Chris.

I'd like to bring Pierre in here because we're really trying to address the impact on the climate and the production of carbon - there's lots of different ways that carbon is produced, not just in the environment, but in people getting there and in business travel.

00:11:34 Pierre-Louis Godin

Absolutely, that's a great point Karen, and I'm sure a lot of people have been reading the latest IPCC report and we are definitely in a climate crisis, and there is climate urgency, but that doesn't mean we have to be complacent or not act on it. And that's why organizations need the data to actually understand the impact they are causing and how to best act on it to reduce their emissions. At Emitwise, we help companies measure their carbon emissions across their operations and supply chains. The way we do so is essentially with the idea that if you don't have the data, if you don't understand exactly how many emissions you're causing, you won't be able to act on and cause reductions.

And to the point of, for example, just taking the example of employee commuting, one study highlights that nearly 98% of the emissions that an employee can be due to their commuting patterns, which is immense and to be able to act on that data you need for it to be very granular and accurate.

First, say you're a very large organization and you want to understand how do you best reduce the emissions from your employee commuting, you could use average data, say on average in the UK. if you're an organization of X size, you could expect your emissions contributing to be of Y emissions. But work we're doing at Emitwise, it's really understanding granular data.

For example, what are the patterns of each individual employee? What commuting routes are they taking? What vehicles are they using? What's the fuel used in those vehicles? And with that type of granular data, say for example, you're a Microsoft or an Amazon of this world, and you're looking to reduce the emissions of your employee commuting, and you say OK, well on average we're looking at our US operations and on average, perhaps Z% of employees in US have electric vehicles.

But if you actually understand how many of your employees are using electric vehicles, and if you're below the average, perhaps you can put in place subsidies to incentivize your employees to change their commuting behavior. So with the type of actually granular data that you can look to reduce your emissions. Shifting from averages to the data you're actually causing as an organization, and that's the work we're doing with our customers.

00:13:44 Karen Plum

Are clients coming to you particularly at this time in terms of the move to hybrid working, is that something that's driving them to look and to want to measure more accurately the emissions that they are generating as businesses?

00:14:01 Pierre-Louis Godin

Absolutely with the hybrid working a lot of organizations are trying to understand what's the best option. Should their employees be working from home, from the offices and to my earlier points, it's all murky, it's in the air right now - there's no actual data to understand what is causing which.

Some companies are claiming they're reducing their emissions considerably by allowing their employees to work from home, but that varies depends on the countries, the regions. Say for example working from home in the winter is much more carbon intensive than having your employees in the office because homes are less energy efficient than some office spaces for companies.

So you actually need to use the granular data of what's the energy use in the homes of individuals, how are the heating systems, the inefficiencies – so that’s the type of data we're looking at.

00:14:48 Karen Plum

So it sounds like a lot of data to collect so that you can come up with real numbers for an organization not based on some industry standards or assumptions.

00:15:00 Pierre-Louis Godin

Absolutely, that is totally correct and there is definitely a move towards the need of accurate reporting. And that's from various individuals - Governments are asking companies for that information. Investors are putting a lot of pressure to have the actual amount of emissions that they're causing. Employees also are asking for it - individuals want to work with companies that are aligned with their values and a statistic that is just quite crazy is that 70% of millennials are willing to take pay cuts and work for organizations that are strong on sustainability. 

And I could definitely testify to that - having started in the company which is very much aligned with climate change. Companies want to reduce their own emissions from their supply chain - so if you can prove to your customers that as a supplier you are working to reduce your emissions, that you are the best option on the market, you can also win business that way. So a lot of forces coming into play.

00:15:50 Karen Plum

Yes, and William you and I have talked about this before - it's very different really, trying to reduce your carbon emissions as opposed to finding some spurious ways of offsetting it.

00:16:04 William Buller

Well, absolutely Karen and I think one of the things that we've seen over the last year or so is that people can work very effectively in many different ways and that employees are starting to trust their people. And they're also starting to ask them what they want.

And to Chris’s point earlier, we thought we had it perfect, but in fact it's constantly changing. So what we've found is that when we actually go into organizations and start to look at what actually people want and how that reduces emissions, that adopting new ways of working, flexible/agile working can actually reduce real emissions by 30%. And actually people prefer this to some of the things that they've done in the past, which is having to travel and buying offsets to offset that travel because actually they don't really want to travel. They don't want to commute and employers are actually trusting their people much more.

In the past it always used to be about costs and all the priorities when it came to workplace stratetgy - at the top of the list was cost, and sustainability and what employees wanted was always fairly low down the list, but we're seeing that invert.

00:17:20 Karen Plum

Yes, is this, in your experience, William, is this becoming more of a focus - in the projects that we're working on with our clients?

00:17:27 William Buller

Oh absolutely yes. Governments are demanding that organizations report and I think people are starting to take this very seriously with the IPCC report, organizations are starting to go, we really need to transform the way we work and they are starting to look at really some quite radical ways of working, and I think we can all do something different, I think taking you know a science based, metrics driven approach and applying that to individual performance or the way individuals work is actually something that should start to become more important.

So I think we will start to see a much more individualistic approach and of course that fits in very nicely with this more flexible working from home type perspective, because of course people can control their carbon emissions from their homes and they're starting to want to do that much more.

00:18:25 Karen Plum

So it's time for us to rise to the climate change challenge and think about how we work, where we work, and what we need in terms of space. AWA published a report this summer called “I don't like Mondays (or Fridays)” about the potential for buildings to become like Swiss cheese with pockets of empty space, which continues to be cooled, lit, heated, and serviced.

As you heard from my guests, there are tools available to help organizations manage these situations and our show notes contain a link to the report if you'd like to know more.

Thanks to my guests Chris, William, Raj and Pierre for getting involved in the discussion. And now we’ll take a quick break and I'll be back after this message to discuss the latest trends in the UK.

ADVERT: Are you changing the way your organization works? Maybe you're trying to see if hybrid working is right for your business or needing to train people to work or manage in the virtual world. Perhaps you're trying to work out how much space you need once you adopt different ways of working, and what types of environments will work best. 

At Advanced Workplace Associates we work with companies around the world helping people figure out the answers to these challenges based on what they want to achieve for their business. Our friendly team of consultants blend workplace science with creativity to help you create the best work experiences for your people. 

We gather the evidence needed to decide on future ways of working through a range of studies and provide change management support when you're implementing new strategies. If you'd like to talk to us, there are details in our show notes. We look forward to hearing from you. 

00:20:10 Karen Plum

Welcome back now we're going to find out what's going on in the UK and I'm delighted to welcome back AWA Founder and Managing Director, Andrew Mawson. Hello, Andrew.

00:20:20 Andrew Mawson

Hi Karen.

00:20:22 Karen Plum

I wanted to ask you - what are the main trends you're seeing as organizations are thinking about how they're going to either return to the office or not return to the office? What sort of models are you seeing in the UK?

00:20:33 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think it's very messy at the moment. I think you do hear a lot of the tech companies are now declaring that they're going to come into the office three days and everybody is going to be on the same three days, which means you've got buildings that are substantially empty for four days, which seems something which you know I would have thought is only a transient position until there's a greater level of maturity.

So you've got that kind of model - you got people like LinkedIn who are basically saying, yeah, you know your teams can work it out for themselves, which I think is the most sensible. And you know Twitter are on the record of saying that their people have the right to work at home and then they kind of got to work it out in a mature way as well. And then you've got some organizations saying, well, it's three days a week and it's any three days a week, and some people then responding and saying, well, actually I've been working pretty well for the last 15-16 months, why do you want me to come in at all? 

And I mean UK Government is saying 50% - they want people in the office 50% of the time, but we know from all of the data that we collect on our studies that something like 80% of the people who we've surveyed over the last 15 months want to work at home two days or more - and those are averages. But we won't really see whether what the people have declared in their data turns out to be real until we've got through this period when people are, you know, worried about going into an office in any case.

00:22:06 Karen Plum

Yes, and we were talking earlier in the podcast - Chris was saying that of course giving everybody choice is fantastic, but it gives the accommodation planners and the space providers a big headache around having enough space at the time when people come in, but also the fact that people may come in to be with their colleagues and then they discover that their colleagues aren't there. So there's a certain amount of planning needs to go on, which obviously links into the systems that Raj was talking about.

And some organizations are saying, well, we'll have everybody in Monday through Wednesday, and so everybody will be certain that their colleagues will be in then and then they can work Thursday, Friday at home if they choose to. What's your view of that arrangement?

00:22:52 Andrew Mawson

I can understand why they would do that, and you know some of the organizations we're talking about rely very heavily on having people together in the same space for that sort of legendary serendipitous bouncing around stuff that people talk about.

00:23:07 Karen Plum

Water cooler moments yeah.

00:23:09 Andrew Mawson

I mean, I think there is value in human beings being in the same space and I can see that if your outcomes from your work are very valuable, like it's a piece of software or a piece of development or something which has really high value, then I can see why you might not be too worried about having a building sitting empty for four days but morally is that a good idea, I ask myself.

Buildings generate lots of carbon and so does travel in and out of major cities, so you would have thought that having got past this phase where people are making these edicts, that once they settle down, we might see companies beginning to innovate a bit more. I mean, in its simplest form, if you do feel the need to have your people in the office three days out of seven and all at the same time, well, you could take a view that you've got another four days’ worth of space that you could be renting or using in some other way so you could create sort of a situation where one team or one community or one business came in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then another business came in on Thursday, Friday and maybe Saturday or Sunday.

Of course that's sort of breaking into the weekend model, but nevertheless, you may find that some of your people would rather like to have a weekday off instead of a weekend day off. Some of these statements that people have been thinking about - you gotta be in the office.50% of the time or two to three days a week or something I think to some degree these are holding statements.

00:24:41 Karen Plum

But it's all arbitrary, isn't it? There's no data to say that 50% is right, it's just a line in the sand!

00:24:47 Andrew Mawson

That is very true, but it's interesting isn’t it because quite a lot of people directors are being given the job to sort this out and it's not easy. It's complicated - there are issues around taxation, there are issues about remuneration, London allowances or those sorts of things. Our view is, you basically need to go through a change process which allows every human being in your organization to get to a new agreement with their leader about how this is all going to work for the team, and then that agreement has to be placed within an agreement for the company as a whole. And that I think it's by far the most sensible route, but it's complicated and it's taken us some time to pull that that process together.

00:25:33 Karen Plum

Yeah, but we are in the middle of a climate emergency as well, and so the notion that buildings are going to be half empty and still being lit and heated and cooled and serviced just really doesn't make sense. We've done some projects with clients where we've looked at their carbon emissions alongside Emitwise who we were talking to earlier.

00:25:55 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think the interesting thing about those projects - so we've done a number of these, and it looks roughly as though on a per person basis, carbon associated with work, which would be some commuting, business travel to offices and consumables equates to about four return flights from London to JFK every year per person, so it's a substantial chunk of carbon.

00:26:17 Karen Plum


00:26:20 Andrew Mawson

Now if you are an organization that is in the public spotlight and you're making external noises about moving to a zero-carbon model or your clients are asking you to do that, then what we've seen is that organizations we've been working with have been using the carbon argument to convince some of their senior leaders that this is a better idea than just saving some money. And it’s sort of interesting that because the sort of carbon saving is kind of legitimizing the story about why we should change.

Well I feel quite strongly about at the moment is what we've got going on here is something much more profound than most people imagine. I think we've got a lot of senior leaders who've got some pretty old models of the world in their heads. The old world was about command, control and presence really and I think what we've discovered over the last sort of 18 months is that the world is quite possibly about virtuality and trust more than anything else. We've learned that we can actually trust people, and I think there's quite a bit of tension in organizations at the moment between some of the senior leaders who've got quite a lot of power who are still fixated on that old model and the rest of the population who have tasted the freedom and who now want more of it.

00:27:48 Karen Plum

And as one of our guests was saying earlier, and certainly for the younger generations, they're far more likely to want to work for an organization that is taking an appropriate stance on climate change and doing something powerful to reduce their impact on the planet. So I think the whole thing is really in a state of flux at the moment, and rightly so.

00:28:12 Andrew Mawson

I think there's a sort of conventional wisdom out there - that young people, probably under the age of 29, want to be in the office more than everybody else? Well, in fact it is true, but only a little bit. Most people under 29 are still looking for a higher level of flexibility, so you put all these things together and it all starts to make some sense, but organizations don't on mass react rationally in the first instance, so you know it’s going to be a time of learning and thinking and working stuff out and new models.

00:28:46 Karen Plum

Indeed, it'll be very interesting to see how it unfolds. OK, well that's all we've got time for today Andrew, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, it's been great talking with you.

00:28:58 Andrew Mawson

Thanks Karen, have a good day.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.

Focus on the UK