The sustainability of work in the ‘newmal’

The sustainability of the workforce has been one of the many issues that have been highlighted from the changes brought about by COVID19. I’m not talking about keeping people working, I’m talking about social and environmental wellbeing.

Many people are asking: but what if we never go back to the old ‘normal’? What if we embrace the new normal, the ‘newmal’? In capitalist societies, we have turned work from a productive activity for livelihood and improving quality of life, to a sprint for the gain of material wealth – many people spending a great deal of time commuting to urban centres for employment, and often at the detriment of leisure time.

One of the keynote speakers for this year’s OzWater conference Simon Kuestermacher spoke of the problems associated with the centralisation of the workforce. With a map of Melbourne he illustrated the areas of population growth, which were mainly central and peri-urban areas, contrasted to the growth of the workforce, which is primarily in the central CBD area. The problems then associated with a commuting workforce are multiple. It encroaches not only on work-life balance, but it also creates a sustainability conundrum.

What would be more efficient, Simon says (no pun intended), is for a commuting workforce to look more like an anthill than a star with a central point. This got me thinking about the ways we can utilise the changes forced upon us during COVID19 as an opportunity for a more sustainable workforce, and greater social and environmental wellbeing.

Instead of employers demanding employees to commute to centralised locations, they could support a more flexible employment environment by providing choice to employees to work from sustainable coworking spaces closer to home for those unable to work from home for logistical, space or other personal reasons.

The popularity and use of coworking spaces has been on the rise in recent years. They often serve as places where workers (and thus innovation) thrive. Many are based on principles of sustainability, in both their running and their architecture.

While most coworking spaces are member-based, state and local governments are beginning to support these projects by providing funding to community groups, local businesses and entrepreneurs to transform under-utilised or empty spaces, like Victoria’s Regional Coworking Spaces and Creative Places┬áprogram.

Of course, there are always those who cannot work from home or decentralised locations, but flexible working arrangements for those who work in an office environment, and can work from a distance is beneficial to both workers and the environment.

In effect, you would create a decentralised workforce – clusters of decentralised work commutes, where employees could work either from home or close to home, decreasing emissions and high energy outputs related to both commuting to work and the running of large office environments; and increasing work-life balance, and therefore employee wellbeing.

The workplace commute is responsible for an average of 98% of employees work-related carbon output. According to a US study, a typical office for 90 people emits approximately 234 tonnes of CO2e per year, compared to a three person household which emits 1.39 tonnes of CO2e per year.

Creating local coworking spaces in peri-urban and rural areas also introduces more local employment opportunities, which can be based on local needs, and in turn forge stronger communities.

Stronger communities and higher levels of wellbeing amongst workers would be a win-win situation. According to a survey by McCrindle 28% of Australians would be willing to earn 5% less for greater working flexibility, and 14% of Australians would be willing to earn around 10% less if it meant access to remote working opportunities.

This finding supports the call by degrowth proponents for fewer working hours and more flexible working arrangements. These kinds of changes would mean a shift away from our growth-oriented society, towards one balanced on the wellbeing of people and the planet. After all, there has been substantial research into the fact that economic growth is not making us happier, it is instead turning us into “slaves of material things” – to quote one of my key informants in Ecuador.

Buchs and Koch (2018) said “In a co-evolutionary process, a range of institutions developed which are now coupled to a growth-based capitalist economy, including the nation state, representative democracy,the rule of law and current legal, financial, labour market, education, research, and welfare systems. These are based on philosophies which emerged to justify and give meaning to these institutions, for instance on individualism, freedom, justice, sovereignty, or power. The embeddedness of the growth-based capitalistic economic system in these co-evolved institutions and ways of thinking makes it difficult to transition to a degrowth system because the change of the economic system would need to involve a parallel transformation of those coupled systems.”

Here’s the thing: COVID19 has fundamentally challenged the workings of those institutions and questioned the basis of those philosophies. This leaves us with an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach to many aspects of society, including work.

To really think radically, what would this look like if governments extended the free childcare for working families introduced by the Australian government during COVID19 (or at least lowered fees to help more parents rejoin the workforce after having children) and provide more childcare options attached to these decentralised coworking environments?

We would potentially have more people in paid full or part time employment, working closer to home, with lower stress levels, more time to spend with loved ones, healthier and stronger communities, less environmental stress on urban environments, and fewer associated environmental emissions.

This is just one vision of what the future of work could look like for greater social and environmental wellbeing – a more sustainable workforce for a better future. I’ll leave this open for comment. I’d be interested to hear yours.