Back to the office: A moment of change for behaviours and habits

​Are you and your team returning to the office full or part time this autumn? Why not use this ‘moment of change’ to embed pro-environmental habits around low-carbon travel, waste reduction and recycling? 

​Why our brain loves habits and routines

​You may not realise but thinking requires a lot of energy, so our brain tries to minimise it as much as possible. Yes, that’s right! Our brain is wired for shortcuts, which is why it loves routines and habits. Daniel Kahneman divided the brain’s many complex activities into system 1 and system 2. System 1 is low-energy and operates on impulse, instinct, memory and emotions. Meanwhile system 2 is energy intensive – slow, deliberate and logical.
​By repeating a task, what starts out as a system 2 brain activity soon gets turned into a system 1 automated process. If you think about all the things we do on autopilot daily that once we deliberately had to learn e.g. walking, driving a car, the daily routine to work. 

These systems run simultaneously but once embedded changing habits can be challenging and require attention and focus.

​​The impact of the pandemic

Before the pandemic many people’s daily routines followed a regular pattern. A third of the British population ate the same lunch every day! Even the weekly shop according to Adcock was mainly based on low energy system 1. 60% of grocery purchases were grab and go, and pre-pandemic impulse buying, counted for as much as 35% of all purchases
However, the pandemic created a moment of change..

“Moments of change’ are when individual life circumstances shift within a short time frame, and include biographical and external changes (e.g., becoming a parent, travel disruption)” Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MOCHA project

Suddenly even the simplest activity required our high-energy system 2 brain – to navigate a 2 metre distance, a one-way system or find the hand sanitiser.  The daily commute, grabbing a takeaway coffee and lunch en-route disappeared overnight.

A moment for environmental and social awareness

​As well as making us consider our actions, the pandemic has led to many people becoming more environmentally and socially conscious. In 2020 Kearney’s annual retail report found that 48% of respondents were more concerned about the planet’s health as a consequence of the pandemic. According to Corey Chafin, “this year we see consumers expressing a more direct link between their health and the health of the planet,” Futera and One Pulse found that rather than a dip in climate interest, nearly 80% of respondents are now willing to make lifestyle changes to stop climate change. Changes as big as those they’ve made for coronavirus.

​Using ‘back to the office’ for pro-environmental habits

​Fast-forward 18 months and once again, we’re in a moment of change. Many of us have to adapt our routines and consider every action as we return to the office; putting on shoes instead of slippers, packing a bag! 
So how can green champions, business owners and leaders use this moment to adopt more pro-environmental behaviours around the office? 

While old work habits have been broken this is the perfect opportunity to introduce new ones. Here are some suggestions, but remember the change in routines will be tiring for people returning to work. Don’t overwhelm people with too many actions and requests.

​Change the defaults

  • Remove the ‘easy option’ and the negative defaults e.g. under desk bins, or general waste bins isolated from recycling bins (always have together), disposable cups in coffee machines and canteens
  • Set up and brief in new systems for waste management and recycling as part of your back to work inductions

​Trial new habits 

It takes over 21 days of repetition to create new habits. Added into the challenge is the fact our brain thinks about all the things it will miss out on if it gives something up e.g. comfort, convenience, pleasure.  Use the many awareness weeks and themes in September to remove the pressure of a permanent change: 

​Communicate positively

We model our behaviours on others, our peers and those in authority, and love being rewarded for our actions so…..
  • Celebrate those modelling the desirable pro-environmental behaviours to reinforce new social norms
  • Share updates from top-management about the changes in their behaviours and the organisation, to enforce importance
  •  Use positive language to reinforce the desirable behaviours rather than focusing on the negative behaviours: 
    • Avoid words like ‘should, must, have to’ these are negative and toxic and imply effort
    • Use ‘Thank you for doing X’ rather than ‘Please don’t do Y’ 
  • Use motivators that resonate with people e.g. rather than talking about environmental benefits talk about the personal benefits

​Getting to grips with behaviour change 

​Are you on a mission to inspire and achieve change for the environment or climate crises? Want to know more about how to be more impactful by adopting behaviour change principles to your workplace or work?

Join these upcoming workshops in October to be an even more impactful changemaker for people and planet. 

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