Low carbon collaboration

Low carbon centres for collaboration 

How can workhubs help reduce our carbon footprint?

The environmental impact of home-based working has been the subject of considerable research in recent years.

Each person's circumstances vary, but the general consensus is that home-based working has a significantly smaller environmental footprint than working in an office away from home.

Much of this is down to a shorter commute to work or eliminating the need to commute at all.

There are other advantages. Our homes use considerably less energy per square metre than air-conditioned offices, much less so if your home was built recently. Construction is a major source of carbon emissions.

It's true you might use more energy if you moved from working in an eco-office to working from home in a draughty cottage. But homes are generally less carbon-intensive than offices and this is reflected in non-taxable allowances set by the Treasury.

It considers it reasonable for employers to pay staff working from home a maximum £3 per week (£156 per year) for any additional heating and electricity costs incurred.

For the full-time home-based business, part of the carbon savings arise from never having had an office built in the first place, though this is balanced against any carbon increases arising from a larger domestic space and running a home office.

Those who argue against homeworking's carbon benefits suggest that much carbon saved by not commuting goes instead on home heating and electricity. But this assumes people use a home office in the same way as a traditional office.

The counter argument goes that when you are paying the bills yourself, you are less likely to leave unused equipment on or to heat (or cool) your work space without good reason. You're extremely unlikely to leave the heating on when you go out or to heat the whole property.

As our offices and homes become more environmentally efficient, the differences may narrow.

Where do workhubs fit in the homeworking world?

A workhub is an office and meeting place. At a basic level, using one gives you a larger carbon footprint than you would have working solely from home.

On the other hand workhubs can make your home-based working more viable by giving you access to sophisticated remote working options (vital if your broadband connection is unreliable or faulty).

They are notably good at opening up new business opportunities through networking and collaboration. Being able to work occasionally with other people also helps counter isolation.

They can help give your business a professional front - attractive meeting spaces (also a midway point for meeting clients) and virtual office services.

And if you're out on the road you can drop into a hub to catch up on work without returning to your home base.

The carbon impact of travelling to a workhub

A 2010 survey by the Workhubs Network found that most workhub users worked most of the time at their home. Others used their home as a base or regularly mixed working at home with working away.

Thirty percent said they had employees or regular business partners who also worked at home.

Around two-thirds used a workhub once a week or less so lost few of the carbon benefits of working from home. Some said they used a workhub every day, though still thought of themselves as a home-based business.

Their carbon impacts would be much the same as that of working in a traditional office, unless they used the hub to avoid travelling further distances for work.

The average distance of the workhub used from the home of the respondent is 14.5km. This is close to the average commuting distance for all employed people.

We also asked workhub users to state how far their previous workplace was from their home, if they had worked in a separate place. Half had not.

The other half had travelled an average 29km. This finding is in line with other research which indicates that people with longer commutes are more likely to take up home-based working.

One interesting finding is how people chose to travel to the workhub. Most went by car alone, though still 12% lower than the national figure. High numbers cycled or walked. One in five walked, twice the national percentage given by the Department of Transport of 11%.

Workhubs as low carbon business centres

The environmental efficiency of a workplace can be calculated by working out the number of people it serves per square metre - the more people, the more efficient it is.

Workhubs cater for multiple users - like a gym they have more members than workspaces so any empty office space is quickly occupied by members dropping by to work or meet clients.

This can make them much more efficient than a traditional office, assuming they have a steady turnover of clients.

Many large employees are now shrinking their office portfolios, encouraging desk sharing in the offices they retain. In the public sector a more or less default standard has emerged of eight desks for every 10 employees.

Private companies have gone further, achieving ratios of 1:2, 1:4 or even 1:10. This sort of target could be boosted by encouraging employees to use workhubs, the closer to their home the better.

The local role for workhubs

At the moment, the workhubs sector is in its infancy. Their location owes more to serendipity than any coordinated effort to encourage them in areas where they could support home-based businesses and reduce the need to travel for work.

However the high number of start-up businesses that responded to our survey suggest that workhubs play a strong role in supporting new businesses.

Workhubs also provide an attractive workplace for local people who might otherwise travel to another location for their 'office when needed'. That adds to the footfall of people using nearby shops and services. These are essential to social sustainability.

The role of workhubs in promoting a low carbon economy

The trend for workspace is to cut fixed property costs and enable people to work from a wide range of locations. Both employers and individuals want more flexibility. Technology has helped by unfettering people from the traditional office.

The number of employees and home-based businesses who work at least some of the time from home is increasing, and set to grow further in the coming years.

But workers still need places to meet colleagues and clients and mobile workers frequently need an interim location, other than  home and head office. This has led to the rise in serviced offices and hub facilities.

Here workhubs have the edge over a business park. Edge-of-town business parks are high carbon solutions for economic growth. The offices are largely unoccupied outside normal office hours.

They are far from both residential areas and the shops and other facilities available in town centres. Their users commute to work and travel again to use town centre services.

Some business park offices do operate flexible space at the margins, and may provide virtual office services. But they are not geared to the needs of home-based businesses or mobile or home-working employees. In short they are poorly positioned to form part of the low carbon economy.

By contrast, workhubs are typically located close to where homeworkers live or in central locations that their members can walk or cycle to or get to using public transport. And they can make efficient use of that journey to use other services they need located nearby. 

What can we conclude?

The carbon advantages are essentially as follows:

  • Workhubs help to make home-based working more viable by offering the supplementary benefits of networking and collaboration, sophisticated equipment and technology
  • Workhubs can reduce the need to travel further afield to meet clients, colleagues or use the professional facilities of a traditional office
  • Workhubs use office space more efficiently per square metre than a traditional office, catering for more people than there is desk space for and sharing power-hungry facilities and services.

This is an edited extract from the Workhubs Network's 2010 report Workhubs: smart workspace for the low carbon economy, which includes a full list of the research references.

Download the report