Workplace energy cultures – a way to understand workplace energy demand

News 19 April, 2024

Workplace energy cultures – a way to understand workplace energy demand

Industry in the UK accounts for 14% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. With an urgent need to decarbonise our energy systems, there is pressure for all sectors to reduce their energy demand.

Industry’s approach to decarbonisation often comes from a technical and engineering perspective. This perspective focuses on reducing energy demand by improving the efficiency of equipment and infrastructure (e.g., changing machinery, changing lighting, upgrading building energy management systems) or installing microgeneration renewables (e.g., solar panels) which reduce the demand on the energy grid. However, people use energy, not buildings. Within industry and the workplace, this means employees are driving the use of energy, not buildings or machines.

The energy culture framework

In my work I used the energy culture framework to examine energy use in an industrial work environment with a mix of office and manufacturing activities. This framework approaches energy demand topics by applying a whole-system approach, arguing that energy use is the result of three interacting core themes: material culture, norms, and practices. Material culture represents the physical environment, infrastructure, technologies, and structures that play a role in how energy is used. Practices are the tasks and behaviours that are conducted that use energy. Norms are the expectations, aspirations and shared beliefs relating to a given practice and material culture.

By examining the characteristics of these three core themes, we can identify and examine the wider influences on the characteristics. External influences can then be developed or modified to address different characteristics of the framework and consequently change the energy culture. Applying a whole system approach enables us to incorporate topics which directly affect energy demand e.g. energy infrastructure, while also including topics with a more indirect effect such as the accessibility and location of different goods and services.

Industry is not monolithic in its energy use

The research reported in this paper demonstrates how the framework can be applied to a workplace environment, and figure 1 highlights the multiscalar nature of workplace energy cultures.  The paper looks at the energy cultures of both manufacturing and office environments within a single employer, and the findings highlight some clear differences, with the office environments having a more energy-efficient energy culture compared with the manufacturing areas. This demonstrates that industry, and even a single employer, is not monolithic in relation to the culture of energy, there are multiple cultures. Examining the wider external influences on this setting identifies a number of different factors impacting on employee energy demand, including the wider, more established safety cultures, the top-down structure of the business, and wider government agendas.

The importance of place and governance

This paper is an output from an EPSRC CASE award PhD research. However, this research feeds into ongoing work of two EDRC research themes.

Place: the proposed workplace energy culture framework (above) highlights the importance of place when discussing energy demand topics. The figure highlights the variety of scales energy cultures can be examined within a business e.g individual, work team, building and site. It also highlights how some of the wider external influences on energy culture characteristics can occur at varying scales, with some affecting energy cultures at all scales e.g. business communications or government legislation, while others only affect energy cultures at certain levels e.g. individual management approaches/styles.

Governance: paper research findings highlight the importance of internal and external governance structures on energy demand. Internally, the business structure directly impacts how business agendas are communicated and implemented to employees. In this case study, the more traditional top-down structure is noteworthy, as are historic ties to the military and defense sectors. Business decisions are made at board level, and filter through the business via the internal communications function. When needed, this can lead to large scale culture change, as exemplified by the evolution of site safety culture in the 1990s. Externally, the results show how stability and security are important for business decisions. It highlights how external influences such as ISO standards and business legislation affect the day-to-day running of the business. But it also shows how changing government agendas can have a direct impact on this business, and these decisions can filter down to employee level. The paper notes how a changing government agenda, changed the business priorities, and how energy went from being a big topic of interest, to one of less interest, and consequently investments in energy changed. At an employee level, the results suggest that uncertainty around future investment, and fundamentally job security, affects employee motivation to conduct energy efficiency related tasks.

Read the full paper here: Workplace Energy Culture Framework: A Mixed Methods Study Examining Differences in Energy Use and Behaviours within an Industrial Workplace