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COVID-19 Impacts on Sustainability in Real Estate

Andrew Baker • 09/04/2020

March is peak reporting period for sustainability teams - at this time of year teams across the globe collate and validate 2019 sustainability performance data from investor and occupier real estate portfolios and crunch it into the formats required for reporting to organisations like GRESB and CDP who benchmark and award performance ratings. 

As we do this today you can’t help but think what a remarkably different world we are now in and the impact that will have on corporate and investor sustainability performance in 2020. The fact is we are seeing very dramatic improvements in sustainability performance and this will pose complex questions when we return to ‘business as usual’.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the status quo, accelerating our transition to a low carbon economy and presenting opportunities for professionals to be more productive and to get a better work life balance.  

Here are some of the ways that we can expect to see recent changes impact sustainability performance in the long term: 

 

Emissions from corporate travel

Companies that thought they had made tremendous progress in reducing corporate travel by 10-20% or so over the past decade have suddenly seen what a “Net Zero” carbon emissions travel policy actually looks like and while the impact on trade will be difficult to tease out, the cost savings will be very transparent and compelling.  

Necessity is driving innovation in the delivery of services and we are already finding that services like energy and environmental audits can be done remotely to a very high standard. The breakdown of the perception that deals have to be done face to face or that auditors needed to be physically present at a site to deliver professional services are key societal barriers to low carbon delivery.  

In the post COVID-19 world we can expect to see an even more stringent approach to what’s acceptable for corporate travel and remote deals and audits remaining acceptable perhaps outright preferred. 

 

Saving time commuting

This crisis is forcing us to challenge our traditional approach to ‘presenteeism’, physically attending a place of work, as the office is no longer the focal point of the work environment. 

Mid-March 2020 saw 62 million downloads of video conferencing software in a single week. It is fascinating that this software has been at many of our fingertips for years and yet our working conventions meant it was not being utilised to its full potential.

Our sustainability team has been reaping the benefits of video conferencing technology for some time as, after a trial, we found it the best way to ensure effective communication within a team spread across Europe and globally - it better allowed us to juggle our work and life priorities while ensuring we worked effectively as a team.

Even during the crisis >65% of our team find the new way of working more productive and are happier to have got more time from avoiding commuting. It is wonderful to see how quickly other companies have adapted their ways of working and found similar benefits.  

Our experience has been that once the perceptual barrier against turning the camera on is overcome it is so much more effective, going back to the old way of doing things is not an option. I would therefore anticipate this shift continues to disrupt traditional working patterns and challenge the need to be on site well into the post COVID-19 recovery.  

 

But what about our buildings? 

The importance of a building’s layout, plant and physical structure to the health and wellbeing of its occupants was a huge and growing topic before the current crisis.

Wellbeing standards, such as Fitwel & WELL, were seeing a significant uptake in markets across EMEA prior to the crisis as occupiers and investors sought to ensure buildings were efficient, healthy and productive places.

It is difficult for me to conceive that a lasting impact of COVID-19 won’t be even greater focus on employee health and wellbeing given the dramatic times we are living through. 

Yet, it is apparent that much of the data on actual performance of our buildings in this area remains dreadful and if it is available at all it is certainly not available when working remotely! Yet, just like video conferencing, the technology exists to provide us real time insights into sustainability, health and wellbeing performance of global portfolios, but it is just not utilised.

At its most basic it is remarkable that companies are now unable to get sustainability data for so many of their sites from London to Qatar. They had been relying on facilities managers to manually walk around and read the meters and plug this information into manual spreadsheets.

More advanced organisations are equally finding accurate projections on reductions in energy demand or planning for recommissioning of WELL buildings is difficult due to lack of remotely accessible data points.  

I am hopeful that the current situation further justifies investment in these technologies and drives innovation in their adaptation and delivery across our sector. 

Long-term benefits  

Beyond the current distress it is therefore possible to see some permanent changes to our conventional ways of working which will have lasting positive environmental, social and wellbeing impact.

On that basis we need to encourage and retain them and resist the pressures to simply slip back into our traditional modes of working.

Where there is a clear benefit to the environment or our employees - let’s ensure business is brave and takes some positives from this exceptional time. 

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