As the hybrid workplace emerges and businesses are continuing to roll out new technologies to provide their employees with the right tools to work from home, there is a growing concern about the damaging impact that this could have on the environment, writes Ronald Ravel, Director B2B at Dynabook South Africa. But as we begin to move out of the pandemic, it is becoming clear that remote working in some form, will be here to stay.

So the tools, technologies and processes businesses need in order to adapt to hybrid ways of working need careful evaluation. How can IT leaders empower employees and grow their businesses remotely, without abandoning or damaging their sustainable credentials?

IT strategy

A clearly defined sustainable IT strategy – including a commitment from management and measurable targets – can help any organization reach social, economic and environmental goals. As the trend toward hybrid work ecosystems advances, offices will likely continue to act as collaboration spaces and centres of innovation.

And, while many employees will retain a sense of affinity with the office,  our research found that 65% of European businesses will be spending more on hybrid and remote working support including cloud solutions, remote IT assistance, and equipping their employees with new and secure devices. Indeed, respondents of our research described laptops as “the unsung heroes of the pandemic” due to their portability and flexibility in a variety of working scenarios. Smart investments into secure and robust IT equipment will not only save time and money in the long run but can improve employer credentials and create a healthy foundation for hybrid working to thrive.

Help or hinder?

At a first glance, engaging in a sustainable IT strategy seems simple when more remote work is on the cards. In a report drafted by the World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs 2020, a number of trends including the expansion of remote working and the acceleration of digitalisation and automation were highlighted as potentially having an overall positive impact on the environment. This seems to make sense intuitively: remote working would reduce CO2 emissions caused by means of transport, and heating and cooling office buildings.

A decrease in the consumption of takeaway food in cities where offices are based would also cut down on food waste and allow for more sustainable food choices, as well as diminishing the consumption of single-use packaging, crockery, napkins, sauce packets, and straws.

But this is only one side of the coin. IT leaders know they need to consider the impact of the number and types of required devices to power remote working too. Computers, laptops and printers all invariably have their own environmental footprint and as such, could contribute to rising levels of electronic waste around the world. According to The rising tide of e-waste study, nearly all of the 600 global enterprises surveyed (97%) had to purchase new laptops to accommodate the shift to remote working during the pandemic. Given the trend of hybrid working is here to stay, these trends have to be examined in more detail.

Do they, for example,  mean that truly hybrid working is bad for the environment? Not necessarily. While the current consumption of electronic materials is seen as ‘unsustainable’ by some experts, SMBs investing in electronic devices to power their hybrid workforce could look at moving away from a linear model and towards a circular economy in electronics, by improving the life-cycle environmental performance of products. For a sustainable, circular economy in the IT industry, schemes such as reusing, recycling and asset recovery have never been so important.

A sustainable hybrid option

It is important to remember that even before the pandemic, businesses within the IT industry were already regularly updating their IT infrastructure and equipping employees with new devices. And while this has become more prevalent in the last 18 months, businesses have always had to recognise their role in reducing the environmental burden of electronic (e) waste as much as possible – it’s just that device fleets are now being updated more frequently thanks to a combination of technology advancement and a rise in remote work.

The first way to alleviate e-waste is with good IT support.  This ensures that purchased devices last for as long as possible, and that the technology operates smoothly. Away from the physical office, remote IT support can provide workers with on-demand support so that IT teams can access company devices to remotely perform activities including general maintenance updates to resolving more complex technical issues.

The benefits of IT support are numerous: from regularly monitoring systems for malicious software to ensuring security software is running properly and the systems are working efficiently. And with increased budgets for IT support in Europe, it is no surprise that more investment in remote IT support is a common objective for 50 per cent of businesses as we move into a permanently hybrid way of working in the future.

A number of vendors also offer initiatives to help businesses deal with devices after the product’s lifecycle. Two of the most effective are reselling and recycling, which involve either the resale of old devices that are still in good condition, or sustainable recycling initiatives which allow businesses to dispose of their items in eco-friendly ways.

The benefits of these initiatives extend even beyond their eco-friendly credentials. With resale, old equipment that is still in good condition can be bought back from the company, so SMBs with smaller budgets benefit from a refund while freeing up space for new investments. For equipment that has reached the end of its lifecycle, a robust recycle initiative will ensure that businesses can entrust the process of disposal to their vendor, relieving the burden while safe in the knowledge that equipment is being managed in the safest and most sustainable way.

Can hybrid working ever be truly sustainable?

Most signs point to yes – if carried out appropriately. However, while the answer to this question is nuanced, it is clear that only part of the environmental improvements would be caused by workers staying out of offices.

Shifting to a more circular model of operating when it comes to technology devices and improving behaviours when it comes to electronic waste also play a role. Workers might need equipment shipped to them, but even businesses that require a constant flow of shipments can offset this by signing up to initiatives that help them resell or dispose of their old products responsibly. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, it is certainly apparent that hybrid working is here to stay, and so it is up to all of us to find the best and most sustainable way to make it work.

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