As cities went into lockdown in the pandemic, nature awoke. The skies cleared of pollutants, birds sang more loudly without cars to interrupt them, and dolphins were spotted in some of the world’s busiest straits.

It seems that working from home has been good for the environment, says Desmond Tan, Group Director of the Resource & Sustainability Group at Singapore’s National Environmental Agency (NEA). But hybrid work will likely be the more viable option for many.

How then can offices adapt to become greener as we move towards a hybrid work future? GovInsider speaks to Tan to find out what green offices could look like.

Looking ahead: hybrid work as the future? 

As the Covid-19 pandemic prompts us to evaluate the role of office space, we should consider how workplaces of the future can be even greener. Working from home has brought many environment benefits, shares Tan. It reduces carbon footprints, building electricity loads, and transport emissions as a whole, he explains.

Working from home has its fair share of advantages and limitations, and it is not an option open to everyone. However, “we must find some sort of balance,” Tan contends.

“If we are to sustain the resource savings that Singapore has experienced due to the current pandemic, government agencies could consider continuing current flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting and flexible working hours in a post-Covid transition,” says Tan.

Simultaneously, public sector officers could be encouraged to “adopt sustainability habits at home”, to ensure that the net resource consumption from work-from-home is negative.

Eco-offices for environmental sustainability 

NEA has implemented numerous energy and water efficiency measures in its offices, Tan says. For instance, NEA has switched to more efficient air-conditioner models, improved power management in data centres, and installed water-efficient fittings at toilets and pantries.

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has led many NEA officers to work from home, the long-term benefits of an eco-office are evident. The revamped equipment reduces resources needed to sustain the office. For example, motion sensors reduce electricity usage when occupants are not in the building, and energy- and water-efficient equipment moderate consumption whenever in use.

NEA’s efforts speak for themselves. Between 2013 and 2020, the agency reduced its consumption of electricity and water by 15 per cent and 5 per cent respectively, exceeding public sector targets.

Embracing clean energy 

In addition to promoting resource efficiency, NEA generates its own alternative energy to supplement supply from the grid. NEA’s premises generate 680 gigawatt hours of electricity — “equivalent to the average annual electricity consumed by more than 159,000 Singapore households”, shares Tan.

Currently, seven NEA-managed premises use solar panels to generate energy, Tan says. These generated 624 megawatt hours of electricity in 2020. Seven additional sites have been earmarked for solar panel installation.

“Other than solar, energy recovery from waste is another source of energy that we tap on,” adds Tan. Waste-to-energy processes generate electrical energy through the primary treatment of waste. These power operations at NEA’s incineration plants and Tuas Marine Transfer Station, a waste collection point. Any excess energy generated is then sold to the grid.

Spearheading public sector sustainability 

The agency is not resting on its laurels. Under the GreenGov.SG initiative, the public sector has set ambitious targets for 2030. These include achieving 10 per cent electricity and water savings from 2020 levels by 2030, reducing waste by 30 per cent from 2022 levels by 2030, and peaking carbon emissions around 2025.

As one of the lead agencies for GreenGov.SG, NEA will support other government agencies in meeting their energy and waste targets. “In the past, we have worked with agencies to drive energy efficient practices and efforts towards zero waste,” Tan says. These include “encouraging the purchase of energy efficient equipment and appliances”, “implementing good energy management practices”, and “setting up waste management infrastructure”.

NEA also helps to engage third-party providers that can effectively upgrade other agencies’ buildings and equipment. NEA guides these agencies to contract a trustworthy energy services company. The company retrofits agencies’ major energy-saving equipment, while guaranteeing improved efficiency and energy savings.

Under this model, 42 public sector buildings have completed or are midway through the retrofitting process. Energy savings from these projects has since saved government SG$13.8 million annually, Tan says.

With much pessimism afoot regarding the environment, green efforts can sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But with strong government commitment and dedicated agencies leading the way, the road to sustainability seems that much brighter.