- The U.K. could see 40 C (104 F) temperatures every three years by the end of the century.
- U.K. homes aren’t built for heat waves, and traditional office air conditioning systems are not eco-friendly.
- Employers can ensure business continuity by leveraging ESG-focused coworking spaces.
On July 15, the U.K. Met Office issued its first red warning for extreme heat in England, which told people to prepare for an “exceptional hot spell on Monday and Tuesday leading to widespread impacts on people and infrastructure,” adding that “substantial changes in working practices and daily routines will be required.”
Before the July 2022 heat wave, the highest temperature recorded in Britain was 38.7 C. A record breaking 40.3 C was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire on July 19.
Urban environments are particularly vulnerable in heat waves.
Cities are home to large populations and critical infrastructure. There are fewer green and blue spaces to cool surroundings, anthropogenic heat emissions are higher, and the Urban Heat Island effect can increase already high background temperatures.
Global warming is responsible for the recent rise in heat waves, not just in the U.K. but around the world.
“In a climate unaffected by human influence, climate modelling shows that it is virtually impossible for temperatures in the U.K. to reach 40 C,” says Met Office Chief Scientist Professor Stephen Belcher.
Yet, heat waves are becoming hotter, longer and more frequent. If emissions get very high, the U.K. could see 40 C temperatures every three years by the end of the century.
According to Belcher, “reducing carbon emissions will help to reduce the frequency, but we will still continue to see some occurrences of temperatures exceeding 40 C and the U.K. will need to adapt to these extreme events.”
So, what can employers in the U.K. — and elsewhere — do to ensure their employees remain happy, comfortable, healthy and productive in the workplace, even in extreme weather conditions?
Dealing with heat waves when you run a remote company
Keeping employees comfortable in a heat wave is difficult when they work from home. There are measures individuals can take, such as keeping the blinds or curtains drawn and cooling pulse points with cold water, but these hacks are far from perfect.
Is there a moral duty for remote employers to pay for workers’ homes to be fitted with air conditioning systems? Could this be a legal requirement in the not-so-distant future?
The fact is, U.K. homes aren’t built for heat waves. Less than 5% of homes in the U.K. have air conditioning (compared with 90% in the U.S.).
The age of the U.K.’s housing stock is one reason why so few households in the U.K. have air conditioning, aside from the historically mild weather. According to ONS data, one in six homes in England were built prior to 1900, and 46% were built between 1930 and 1982 — before air conditioning technology was widespread.
While new homes can be built with cooling infrastructure in mind, fitting old buildings with air conditioning is not easy or cheap. Lots of old homes in the U.K. are made of brick with very small (or no) air cavities, which already contain water and electric systems.
This makes it difficult and more expensive to install an air conditioning system that would likely only be utilized for a couple of months every year. With the cost of living crisis in full swing and energy bills predicted to soar to £4,200+ in January 2023, most people can’t afford it.
Steps are being taken to make U.K. homes more resilient to climate change. The National Retrofit Strategy (NRS) is a proposal that aims to make existing homes greener and more energy efficient, working in partnership with the government, industry, finance, and community-based bodies to do so.
As well as benefiting the climate, improving energy performance lowers energy bills and improves air quality.
Although it’s rare for U.K. homes to have air conditioning, it’s much more common in commercial buildings, such as office and retail spaces.
To mitigate the impact of heatwaves on remote workers’ health and productivity, employers can leverage the benefits of air-conditioned coworking spaces.
Coworking memberships are designed with business flexibility in mind, therefore suit a variety of operational variables.
For example, during a heat wave, an employer could fund a coworking “day pass” for an employee close to where they live. Coworking day passess usually cost around £20.
On the other hand, a business with a more centralized team might decide to rent an entire private office in a coworking space on a trial basis. Flexible terms eliminate the need for long notice periods, making it easy for tenants to vacate at short notice.
Keeping offices simultaneously cool and green
In the U.K., there is currently no law for minimum or maximum working temperatures.
However, the government says employers must stick to health and safety at work law, including keeping the temperature at a comfortable level and providing clean and fresh air.
Office air conditioning is one of the most obvious ways to keep the temperature at a comfortable level in a heat wave. However, air conditioning itself is a significant climate change contributor. Together with electric fans, air conditioners consume 10% of global electricity and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So, with more heat waves becoming an inevitability, how can employers keep their offices comfortable in the heat without jeopardizing the progress they are making towards net zero? Fortunately, there are ways companies can make their HVAC more efficient and less eco-adverse.
1. A smart thermostat
Smart thermostats help ensure a building’s HVAC runs efficiently by automatically adjusting the temperature. Some smart thermostats learn occupier behavior and make adjustments based on habits. Others use sensing technology to detect motion in a room.
2. High-efficiency HVAC systems
Some air conditioning systems are more environmentally unfriendly than others.
Offices operators should look at the SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating. The higher the rating, the more efficient the system. Regular maintenance check ups can help existing systems run as efficiently as possible.
3. Green energy
One way to operate air conditioning in a more eco-friendly way is to power it with green energy, such as solar power.
According to Solarsense, a typical commercial solar panel system will provide free electricity for more than 25 years, achieve financial returns of up to 20% per annum and pay back installation costs within approximately five years.
4. Green HVAC systems
- Air Source Heat Pumps use ambient air from outside the building as a heat source or sink; because the primary component for heating the air is renewable, it produces less carbon dioxide than a traditional air-conditioning system.
- Geothermal energy is also a renewable resource. Geothermal Heat Pumps use the solar energy stored in the ground as a heat source or sink.
- Alternative Fuel Combustion HVAC systems use renewable fuels (like biodiesel) instead of fossil fuels to lower the carbon emissions.
Future-proofing a business for climate change
Future-proofing through decarbonization will help organizations keep their employees safe and comfortable, and ultimately enable them to survive the impact of climate change.
Decarbonization is fast becoming a fixture of the regulatory landscape. Employers need to think seriously about meeting environmental as well as business continuity standards.
Flexible workspace models such as coworking are key here. Coworking can help an employer bolster its business continuity strategy by providing employees with access to a safe, comfortable and productive work environment.
Eco-friendly coworking spaces that align with employers’ ESG commitments are even more equipped to navigate climate change, keep costs down, and attract and retain tenants.