Rethinking Sustainability in the Workplace
When stay-at-home orders were implemented last March, a silver lining emerged for many for the first time: remote work. The shift to Work From Home was welcomed for several reasons—there was finally time to eat a real breakfast instead of commuting, productivity levels were reportedly up, and of course, we were told that this would be sustainable for the environment.
Data from Breathe London, an Environmental Research Group that also runs the London Air Quality Network, showed that pollution levels in many British cities fell by 60% during lockdown. The electricity demand in New York City reported an 18% decline; carbon emissions in San Francisco’s Bay Area were 25% lower than before. And while Covid-19 lockdowns did lead to a dramatic decline in air pollution across the world, research shows that stay-at-home orders didn’t impact energy reductions quite like we’d thought they would.
Because building systems still require heating, ventilation, air conditioning, as well as emergency lighting and elevator systems for proper maintenance requirements, the energy consumption of office buildings did not fall significantly enough to make a real impact. In fact, as more employees left their corporate buildings for WFH offices, they traded in central AC systems for window units. Companies didn’t quite offset their emissions, as much as spread it to their employees’ homes around the city and country.
Why is sustainability important?
With frequent flooding in the central U.S., a longer and more devastating wildfire season in California, and droughts throughout the Great Plains, 2020 proved to be an especially assertive year for climate change. Since 2015, more than 500 global companies in nearly 200 countries have signed the Paris Climate Agreement, pledging to work together to reduce emissions and keep temperature rise significantly below 3.6°F.
Forbes claims that the majority of C-Suite and VP level business leaders across the globe are expecting sustainable investments to increase sales as well as improve brand reputation. And according to Environment + Energy Leader, approximately $3.4 trillion is projected to be invested in green businesses and climate tech start-ups within the renewable energy industry over the next decade.
Frost & Sullivan, too, has stated this time will be important for the power industry as the transition toward renewable energy is expected to increase, especially as coal hits a steep decline among most developed countries.
Today, many businesses are seeing potential financial gains in this “Green Gold Rush” of opportunities, and the contemporary topic of discussion blooming across both virtual and physical offices in the country is sustainable building.
It all begins with considering your business’s environmental footprint, sure, but how can you measure the footprint of remote workers, hybrid teams, and onsite staff when they’re not working in the same shared space?
The answer isn’t all that simple, but with a little bit of work, there are ways to implement sustainable development goals for all businesses, whether you’re working from home, onsite or in a hybrid working environment.
Sustainability Examples for WFH
Many sustainable businesses have been offering clean energy as a WFH benefit through a new program from Arcadia, a renewable energy platform. Arcadia matches businesses with clean energy like wind and solar, and allows users to track their impact and monthly usage on their dashboard. Not only does this lower total emissions, but it also provides remote employees and team members with subsidized monthly bills.
Kiran Bhatraju, the CEO of Arcadia, told Fast Company recently: “In the past, companies thought about coffee and kombucha and things like that in the office, but they should be thinking about their employees’ sustainability and footprint. This is really a way for a company to say, ‘Hey, we know you’re spending more money at home to do your work through your power bill, we know your footprint is growing.”
Zapier, the American automation tool company, is among the first fully remote companies to purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their environmental footprint. By using reforestation to offset the carbon emitted via home offices, many fully remote, remote-first, and hybrid offices are able to work eco-consciously, without making drastic and cost-intensive changes to their current structure.
With a sizable chunk of the population working from home right now, lights are left on all day, the AC is kept running, and computers are perpetually plugged in. It’s no surprise that digital-first footprints have driven energy use up over the past year.
If you or your employees are currently working from a home office setup, or plan to continue working from home, tapping into community solar can be a great sustainability practice. This increasingly affordable option can be implemented by adding solar roof panels, solar water heaters, outdoor solar lights, and by using rechargeable personal devices such as solar-powered phone and tablet chargers.
Sustainability for Hybrid Work Models
Several companies such as Twitter, Slack, and Shopify have recently downsized their office footprint by going remote-first. Hybrid office examples like Target and Facebook have been scouting locations for new “pods”, a modified hybrid office close to many of their employees’ homes, so that they can gather without occupying a large space or campus that necessitates the use of more energy.
For hybrid workplaces, an eco-conscious solution might be having employees work from home on the same days, so that the offices won't use energy every day of the week.
Furthermore, it’s not just about measuring hybrid model impact—it boils down to how electricity is being generated. Different regions of the world get their electricity from different sources. For example, Germany produces more solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric power energy than coal and nuclear power, bringing their percentage of renewable energy to a whopping 12.74%. Countries like Sweden are aiming to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation entirely by 2040 with the help of investments made in solar, wind, energy storage, smart grids, and clean transportation. Over 300 companies have joined RE100, a global initiative to transition businesses to 100% renewable energy, including Adobe, Airbnb, Apple, and Barclays.
Sustainability for Onsite Workspaces
Besides reducing travel and pledging support for climate actions through renewable energy, there are several ways companies can take actionable steps toward sustainability, even if they are operating at maximum capacity in the physical workspace. Starting with sustainable design for your office space is helpful. Seattle’s Bullitt Center, a commercial office building designed by Miller Hull Partnership, has a rainwater harvesting system that can collect and filter up to 56,000 gallons of water. It also has photovoltaic cells that generate 230,000 kilowatt hours a year, the precise amount of energy to run the building and its operations within. Of course, rebuilding offices isn’t feasible for most businesses, but there are other green methods applicable to design such as renovating with sustainable materials, recycling, and repurposing design elements of the building.
If real estate office design is beyond the scope for your company or business—as it can be for many—eco-friendly lighting and refurbished electronics can also make a drastic reduction in emissions. Opting for upcycled LED or CFL lighting designs, for example, can save a lot of energy, especially if you operate from a large office.
Research conducted at UCLA found employees in green buildings stayed “more motivated, received more training, and benefited from better interpersonal relationships. The employees at green companies are therefore more productive than employees in more conventional firms.”
Recent years have seen more and more companies counting on the Internet of Things (IoT) for clean, green, and sustainable practices. Companies like Siemens use sensor and analytics platforms to connect their decentralized devices and energy sources like solar panels to lessen the strain on conventional, non-renewable power sources. Not only does this reduce energy costs and emissions for Siemens, but it also enhances employee comforts by providing smart lighting, heating, and cooling they can control individually to optimize their workspace.
Whether you’re working in-person, hybrid work from home, remotely, or managing a hybrid team, it’s crucial to be mindful about your environmental footprint. Settle into your best WFH setup by only cooling or heating the room you’re in; follow in the steps of sustainable companies by monitoring energy consumption and offsetting emissions by using renewable energy or reforesting. And, if your employees are working remotely, try to ensure that climate-conscious responsibilities do not fall on their shoulders entirely.
Back to Work is a weekly series that explores the challenging, exciting, and unprecedented time of transitioning back to work through the lens of those involved. As part of our mission to recognize workplace heroes, SmartGift aims to spotlight how fostering connection, transparency in communication, and workplace appreciation can affect company culture and the bottom line.
Over the forthcoming weeks, Back to Work will highlight how managers, employers, and employees continue to be affected by this transition in American work culture.