It's a Monday morning in January. Heavy snowstorms move across Germany leading to traffic chaos on the roads and in the air. My first thought when I opened my eyes was, “nice, you don’t have to race to the airport, potentially get into a traffic jam on icy roads, rush through security to reach a flight in order to attend a business meeting in Hamburg, London, or Prague, only to find that the flight was cancelled due to the weather conditions.”
Since mid-March 2020, our everyday working routine has changed considerably. Negativity aside, many of us simply have a different day-to-day now. Today, not only can I sleep a bit longer, but I can also start my day with my new routine of doing sports, getting a healthy breakfast and my favourite coffee from my own espresso machine, while still arriving on time at my laptop for my first meeting, without having travelled a single mile (except for walking from the kitchen into my home office). This is what I consider to be a luxury in my new normal way of working. Working for Zscaler enables me to work totally remotely, in line with the required contact regulations of the pandemic, and still be productive. Due to the time I don’t have to invest to reach customer headquarters, I’m even able to facilitate more remote meetings per day than I would have been able to via in-person meetings.
Moreover: working remotely was always part of my employee contract, as I am enabled technically via Zscaler to work from wherever I want to. Nevertheless, a huge percentage of my working life was filled with meetings across European cities and sleeping in hotel rooms to be on time for early morning workshops on infrastructure and security requirements for the future way of working. Before COVID-19 hit, I was travelling at least four out of five workdays to attend in-person meetings with customers and prospects to consult them on their digital transformation strategy. Miles were piling up on my Lufthansa frequent flyer card and my car’s tachometer, not to mention the heavy use of my Bahncard.
Looking back at the first year of working constantly from home, I’ve come up with a positive balance in many areas. Before the lockdown, approximately 284 days of the year would have started with a stressful early morning routine. Working from home saved me about 24,750 kilometres on motorways and 195,000 air miles. I even had the time to dive deeper into this calculation: the amount of carbon dioxide that this workload of travelling would have created is equal to the production of 41.58 tons ...just produced by me, myself, and I.
The last year was record-breaking in many ways, but I want to take a moment to emphasize these staggering environmental statistics. My normal working habits in my role on the road is causing an average of 41t of CO2 per year. Just as a reference, a normal German habitant should produce something around 7.9 tons. Besides the stress and amount of money that travelling eats up, I was astonished by this high number. Every single kilometre with my car produces 102g of CO2, and each air mile by plane produces 200g. Of course, it would be possible to optimize the number, for example by replacing my diesel with an electric car (which would require 62g per km instead which would be a marginal gain already) or I could try to reach my targets more often by taking the train and calculate with longer travel times instead. All in all, my personal carbon footprint would still be high.
The real change was forced on me by the pandemic with the consequence of exchanging face-to-face meetings through online interactions with colleagues, partners, prospects, and customers. Having a look at my individual contribution to air pollution, I can only underline efforts of various green organisations to more regularly avoid travelling for the sake of working from home. Greenpeace has requested to have a certain amount of work-from-home days each week. The organisation has found that at least one third of the German workforce (25 - 37%) has been working from home since the first phase of the German lockdown in mid-April 2020. The Work from Anywhere Trends Dashboard from Zscaler replicates these findings - the amount of remote user traffic has risen steadily since the first lockdown, showcasing that companies have adopted the new working from anywhere paradigm slowly. For reference, making a permanent habit of working remotely one or two days per week would save up to 5.4 million tonnes of CO2 in Germany.
Personally, I’m of the strong belief that the possibility of being able to work from home is one of the positive side effects of the dark times resulting from the global health crisis. However, I’m coming across a lot of different opinions, and offices are still full of employees (not only in industries where remote working is not feasible). I was curious to understand the reasons for these different habits of continuing to work from corporate offices.
Outside of technological reasons, like missing infrastructure to enable efficient and secure remote access, other factors prevent people from working from home. Not being able to structure a working day while working from home is just one of the arguments I’ve heard let alone families who have to share limited space in a household with kids and try to juggle between facilitating a job and monitoring homeschooling efforts while also keeping children happy and motivated.
Not seldomly, it was the employer that demanded to work from office spaces as there still seems to be a certain reluctance to trust the productivity of remote workers. Experience proves these sceptics to be wrong, as best practise examples of Zscaler customers show (Working from Home: Greater Efficiency brings productivity). Given the right technology infrastructure for fast and reliable remote access, staff is as productive working from home, if not more productive, as some of the typical office distractors are being reduced. Some early adopters have embraced the work from anywhere mentality full-heartedly and don’t regret it. My daily online conferences show the differences, reflecting which companies have adapted fast and are able to enable their workforce to keep the business productivity going.
My personal takeaways from this “new normal” are that you have to adapt to get the most out of your daily online meetings. Virtual interactions require as much preparation time, if not more, to live up to all expectations of a group of meeting participants. You can’t have a face-to-face chat during a coffee break or at the bar in the evening to make sure that you have brought your point across. You need to follow up with more phone conversations or meetings and need to invest more time to accomplish a mutual understanding for a project’s success. I also have found out that it is super important to stay motivated about little successes, as we all miss the bigger events to look forward to, like our next big adventure in a foreign country.
The last year has shown that this way of doing business is feasible. I, for one, have grown to be an expert timekeeper and learned how to differentiate between working hours and leisure time, and I don’t want to miss my newly-won freedom that I don’t have to spend travelling.
Even if it might still take some time to convince all remaining sceptics, the year of lockdown has catapulted many organisations into the future way of working today. We have grown accustomed to video conferencing and will have to keep the habit of making an educated decision, when a personal contact is the preferred option for a meeting, once contact restrictions will be loosened. So the question has to be: what did we learn in the last year, that is here to stay? I personally have made up my mind already. I’ll have a closer look at my carbon footprint moving forward. The environment will profit from it.