Returning to work is a vital opportunity to rethink our ESG commitments

How the pandemic allowed businesses to reflect on long-term plans


For many businesses, the pandemic has been an opportunity to stop and reflect.

While focus in the months after March 2020 was placed solely on how to keep businesses and services functioning as usual, 18 months down the line, the success of remote working among other changes means businesses are now starting to look at broader, long-term plans for change.

Environmental social governance or ESG frameworks, according to Forbes, have served as a guide and a roadmap for change since the term was first coined back in 2005.

But the rise of social movements and the continued decline of the environment reported by the United Nations means that ESG plans are taking on more urgency: 91% of business leaders surveyed this year by PwC believe their company has a responsibility to act on ESG issues, while more than half of consumers (57%) say that companies should be doing more to advance environmental issues.

While the value of recognizing the diversity and needs of individual employees is well understood, all too often, the environmental aspect of ESG has seemed somewhat sidelined.

With the future direction of when, where, and how we work very much up for discussion, the present is an ideal opportunity to change this, and it puts environmental commitments right at the forefront of our businesses.

How did we get here?

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how businesses have found themselves in this situation.

To put it bluntly, businesses today operate the way they do because that’s how it’s always been done, not because it has any specific benefits. With few workers and leaders having experience of a world where work is any different, various assumptions—such as work must happen in the office, flexible working at scale is impossible, some teams will always have to be office-based—remained unchallenged.

The past year has ridden roughshod over these assumptions, and they’ve been proven wrong, one after another. Work can happen anywhere, remote working at scale is more than possible—even for senior executives—and far from damaging business function, it can actually improve productivity, according to the Great Place to Work Institute.

While some would argue the new system isn’t perfect, few would deny the old system wasn’t ideal either. It may well be that perfection, whatever it looks like, isn’t the right yardstick to measure businesses against, in any case.

So what is?

What to do

One answer is to change how we measure the value of what we do, as well as the criteria that informs that judgment.

Rather than assuming on a very general scale, we need to measure judiciously on a micro level. And we need to measure not just in terms of dollar signs, but human costs and environmental impact too.

Work can happen anywhere.

Take your average international business meeting, for example. It’s not just the cost of plane tickets we should be putting under the microscope. (Perhaps the cost isn’t even that bad.)

Conversely, regularly flying across the continent—or the world—for one-hour business meetings is not conducive to a balanced personal life; the environmental impact of all those flights is, quite frankly, abhorrent. So, on balance, it’s something to avoid.

That doesn’t mean, however, a blanket ban on business meetings. It just means we need to really consider what is necessary and how we weigh up these competing metrics.

What can businesses do

It’s all well and good speaking generally. But what might this look like in practice?

Economics offers an interesting theory—the tragedy of the commons—whereby open access to communal resources sees independent actors overuse or take more than their fair share, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally.

If you look at the standard office model, it’s easy to see how this happens: lights left on, using too much water, wasting food, and so on. Essentially, if you’re not responsible for it, it’s not your problem.

Something similar happens with emissions created either in the workplace or getting to and from it, which are treated as externalities rather than something businesses ought to take responsibility for.

The answer, then, is to use the data and metrics discussed earlier to get a better understanding of these unknown quantities. What is being wasted? Where and how is that happening? And what other actions are we taking outside of the workplace, related to work, that should be accounted for?

Once we have the tools in place and the numbers to hand, we can factor these “invisible” costs into our overall decision-making process and start to adjust our real-life actions accordingly.

Employees can work from home if they don’t need to be in the office, for example, and we can shut down empty or under-used parts of the office. If free food is encouraging waste in the cafeteria, we can change what we order or provide a different benefit that’s more likely to be used. And leaky taps, broken bulbs, and faulty air conditioning systems can be identified and fixed quickly.

How to get there

As alluded to above, getting hold of this data and making it actionable is only possible with the right systems.

This is where the change unleashed by the pandemic comes in. If we’re reconsidering where, when, and how our businesses function on a fundamental level, we should be looking to bring in tools and procedures that give us the data we need to measure what we need to measure and change what we need to change.

Ideally, it’s not 50 systems, it’s just one, bringing together all your data in one place so it’s easily accessible and understandable by whoever needs to see it.

Workflow tools are just one example of this, allowing you to better coordinate teams and make sure everyone is working toward the same goal. But exactly what those workflows look like, and what other tools they encompass, is varied and limitless.

If we can seize this crucial juncture in the history of work to look more critically at our work and how it impacts the planet, we can start making better choices. That will see our workplaces and employees benefit, and in time, the planet will, too.