The issue of sustainability has already outgrown its initial environmental niche and is now viewed as a key component of corporate development. However, as with any reasonably complex topic, the opinions about it vary widely. The detractors frame it as nothing more than a costly facade that has little practical value outside virtue signaling, whereas proponents cite long lists of economic and social benefits. This article is a critical look at some of the most often cited benefits of sustainability in the workplace and why its outcomes differ so much between organizations.
The term “sustainability” is strongly associated with environmental practices, to the point where the green office definition is liberally used to describe any sustainable workspace.
In reality, however, environmental sustainability is only a part of a much broader concept that also includes social, ethical, safety, and ethical considerations. For instance, according to OSHA, sustainability is achieved by balancing the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit to achieve long-term success and viability. As can be seen, this perspective covers three dimensions of sustainability:
In addition to being more comprehensive, such a view brings in a much broader array of benefits of sustainable work practices, from employee safety to business performance. So, to understand its importance, we should try to see the full picture instead of focusing on the popular public perception.
Because sustainability is a multifaceted concept, there are several paths an organization can take to achieve it. Broadly speaking, these paths fall into two distinct categories: modifying the environment through what is known as sustainable design and altering business practices to create a culture of sustainability. Both approaches come with their own sets of benefits and can be successfully combined to maximize the effects.
Sustainable design, also referred to as environmentally conscious or eco design, is an umbrella term for the process of creating products with minimal environmental footprint. Nowadays, sustainable design can be found in many industries, from issuing green certifications in building construction to extending the lifespan of consumer products and encouraging recycling. In the workplace context, sustainable design mostly manifests in constructing offices with low energy consumption and efficient resource use.
One of the central tenets of sustainable construction is the attempt to reduce the impact of human activities on the planet. Nowadays, a typical workspace requires a massive construction project to comply with safety requirements and create optimal working conditions. As the sustainability concept gained traction, several certification systems have been developed to promote it, such as:
Green Building Initiative (GBI)
EPA Water Sense
Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency (CASBEE)
Following these systems allows minimizing waste both during construction and throughout the building’s life cycle. This is particularly relevant for large corporations that have to include their construction projects into sustainability reports. Even more importantly, minimizing the environmental footprint has a beneficial effect on the local community and, by extension, the company’s reputation.
While the construction process takes a considerable toll on the organization’s resources, the bulk of expenses comes from business operations. At the very least, an office is expected to have adequate lighting, optimal indoor temperature and humidity, and a functional ventilation system, all of which require energy. On top of that, most workplaces rely on electrically powered office equipment.
In this light, the benefits of a green office are twofold. On the one hand, following the sustainable design guidelines allows for a considerable decrease in energy expenditures by taking advantage of renewable energy. For example, access to direct sunlight combined with smart sensors ensures comfortable working conditions while minimizing energy consumption. On the other hand, installing energy-efficient equipment and changing company policies to encourage zero-waste operations can reduce operational expenses while also promoting sustainability mindset among employees.
Those who find the global scale of the issue difficult to relate to can instead look into the effects of sustainable design on their workforce. One of the advantages of sustainable materials in office spaces is the reliance on natural lighting and clean air. The former plays a major role in managing circadian rhythms which, in turn, influence performance and mood. The latter is vital for people with cardiac conditions and asthma and has an effect on physical performance and well-being.
One of the noteworthy examples of environmental sustainability in the workplace that takes advantage of natural light and air is the One Angel Square building in Manchester. This construction project has one of the highest sustainability ratings in Europe, not in the least thanks to its positioning that maximizes passive solar gain. In other words, saving energy is combined with fewer workflow disruptions and sick leaves.
When considering the benefits of sustainable development, businesses are more likely to prioritize corporate metrics over environmental concerns. Fortunately, these do not really cancel out, as was shown in the previous section. And for those familiar with the basics of human resource management it should be apparent that health benefits mentioned above translate into better well-being. In fact, there is a multitude of ways sustainable design can improve employee satisfaction:
Exposure to natural elements improves mood
Access to fresh air reduces depression rates
Friendly and welcoming environments increase motivation
Participation in workplace sustainability initiatives contributes to a positive self-perception
As can be seen, sustainable design has two major effects. First, it optimizes business performance directly by reducing operating costs, boosting employee productivity, and reducing turnover rates. Second, it decreases the environmental footprint of the organization, which fosters trust of stakeholders and contributes to the positive brand image.
Aside from locating their office in a sustainably designed building, business owners can come up with other ways of promoting sustainability in the workplace. The most common one is to facilitate sustainable behaviors among employees. Because there’s a noticeable overlap between the two, their benefits are also mostly the same. For instance, sustainable workplace practices contribute to employee satisfaction, help decrease energy consumption, and improve workers’ well-being. Nevertheless, they do offer a number of unique advantages.
With sustainability becoming a mainstay of the corporate world, organizations tend to incorporate the concept into their mission statements. However, making a shift from a nice sound bite to action requires commitment. In fact, having a sustainability-oriented mission statement that is misaligned with the organization’s activities is more damaging to its reputation than skipping on it altogether.
There are plenty of clever ways to foster the sustainability mindset, from educational campaigns to subtle changes in office culture that nudge routine behaviors in the right direction. Once such behaviors are embedded in corporate culture, alignment with the vision does not require conscious effort anymore. This ensures the lasting effect of CSR policies and strengthens the public image of your business.
Another advantage of the sustainable mindset is the innovation-conducive environment. In simple terms, it can be described as follows:
Ways to circumvent the limitations are proposed
Access to fresh air reduces depression rates
Employees participate by refining solutions
Change is implemented across the organization
Performance goes up
In other words, sustainability, like any other limitation, drives innovation. In this light, the benefits of green office programs boil down to the organization-wide commitment. Essentially, instead of a dedicated team entrusted with developing sustainable solutions, business owners tap into the creative potential of their entire workforce that is attuned to the ideas of continuous improvement.
Finally, it is important to recognize the legal side of the issue. In recent decades, growing environmental awareness has left its mark on the regulatory environment of most developed economies. In many industries, sustainability is not only recommended but actually mandated. Occasionally, businesses need to list the steps for developing a workplace sustainability policy before they get approval.
Of course, a sustainable mindset is not something that is seen on the list of regulatory requirements. However, it certainly makes compliance easier. First, it minimizes potential inconsistencies in reporting and streamlines the process. Second, and, perhaps, more importantly, it promotes responsibility on the individual level, which discourages misconduct and strengthens accountability in a bottom-up manner.
Despite being closely related to environmental considerations, sustainability is a fairly broad concept. This breadth is echoed in extensive lists of economic and social benefits of sustainable work practices, making it an attractive strategic goal for businesses. However, its multifaceted nature invites complexity, making an organization-wide change difficult. Issues range from prohibitively high costs and misaligned corporate priorities to unclear performance metrics and unchecked consumption among employees.
Of course, none of these barriers are by any means insurmountable. The reason they can stand in the way of sustainability has more to do with negligence than actual difficulty. In pursuit of profits, companies may choose to forego the comprehensive approach, resorting instead to publicity stunts and occasional piecemeal interventions. At best, such activities have a short-lived effect, occasionally followed by a severe backlash.
This is why educating employees on sustainability is a crucial component of your company’s sustainable development. SustainOnline offers a selection of online courses on sustainability in the workplace that will help you integrate the concepts into your managerial and leadership practices and achieve a lasting effect. Our courses are cost-effective and flexible enough to suit the needs of small businesses and major corporations and, incidentally, are more sustainable than face-to-face alternatives.
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