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.

Balloons blow: the environmental impact of traditions

Tasmania has some of the world’s most pristine beaches, but like all coastal regions they are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, which often brings with it plastic debris and other garbage that has floated out to sea.

Yesterday I was walking at one rather secluded beach in Hobart’s east when I spotted a bright pink balloon complete with plastic ribbon entangled in a bush offshore. It had obviously floated there from a nearby party as it was still inflated.

What would happen if that party balloon made its way out into the ocean? Well, according to the CSIRO balloons are the “marine debris item that has the highest chance of killing seabirds if eaten, and 43 percent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.” What’s more, the CSIRO predicts that 95 percent of all seabird species may be ingesting plastic by 2050.

The Tasman Sea is a global hotspot for impacts of marine debris on seabirds.

This is not news, however. I’m sure you have heard about the major issues plastic and other debris cause to our marine life and coastal habitats. Yet, it continues to be a problem, as I witnessed yesterday.

What can we do about it? One effective way to tackle plastics debris in our oceans is to curb and eventually stop plastic use. This is dependant on a lot of factors including effective policy, education, and waste management. However, people’s attitudes and behaviours are the most important because mindful consumption of resources will lead to a plastic-free, and more ecologically sustainable society.

In the meantime, when looking for balloons for the next birthday party, Sustainability Victoria has put together a shortlist of some wildlife-friendly balloon alternatives, which includes bubbles for the kids, and flowers, which can be rehomed for decoration and then composted.

Changing habits is about keeping in the forefront of our minds, the impacts we have on our environment with our daily actions and decisions, and changing those accordingly.

It involves society as a whole rethinking our role in nature, so that we may effectively lessen our ecological impacts.

After all, these impacts are cyclical. Microplastics, plastic debris, and other contaminants are making their way into the food chain, and therefore having wide-ranging impacts on human health.

UPDATE: Website Balloons Blow (nothing to do with this article or its title) is a great resource for the impacts of balloons on wildlife, including education resources and a fantastic list of alternatives https://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives/