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The Green Workplace
Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, The Environment, and the Bottom Line
By Leigh Stringer
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 HOK, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Case for Change
The future has a way of arriving unannounced.
—George Will, conservative American newspaper columnist, journalist, and author
Tony Jones was having another crazy day at the office. The truth is, if he was being honest, he would tell you that nearly every day is pretty crazy. With his kids' ballet practices, soccer matches, and one client meeting after another, he has virtually no time to relax. He had thought that after years of working hard for the large multinational Alpha Inc., moving up the company ladder and dragging his family across the country, he would finally reap the rewards. And to an outside observer, it would seem that he had. Last year he had moved into a gorgeous new six-bedroom home in the suburbs with a three-car garage. He had just been promoted to senior vice president, received a hefty raise, and moved into a plush corner office with stunning views of the downtown skyline. He had dreamed about climbing to this level since he started with Alpha as an intern, sitting at a tiny desk crammed into the mailroom.
But in fact, to Tony, the rewards didn't seem terribly "rewarding." He felt rushed and harried and, frankly, unhappy. And that beautiful new office? He hardly had the chance to even sit down in it. His day typically went something like this:
6:00 a.m. Wake up, check e-mail and try desperately to get through the backlog.
7:00 a.m. Throw on a suit and drive the kids to school.
8:15 a.m. Stop by Starbucks for coffee and a bagel—to be wolfed down while driving.
8:30 a.m. Arrive at the office and check e-mail.
9:30 a.m. Print copies of reports for the next meeting.
10:00 a.m. Meet with his team in a conference room to discuss an upcoming 10-day trip to Singapore.
Noon Grab a sandwich, to be consumed between three conference calls.
1:30 p.m. Check e-mail.
2:00 p.m. Attend two more meetings that had to happen this week because of the Singapore trip.
5:00 p.m. Write, think, and create new business ideas.
6:00 p.m. Drive to the gym for a quick workout.
7:15 p.m. Grab a fast-food dinner, to be eaten on the long ride home.
8:30 p.m. Arrive back home, just in time to read bedtime stories to the kids.
9:30 p.m. Read more e-mail.
11:00 p.m. Watch the evening news and go to sleep.
Every day, Tony spends about three hours in his car and five to six hours attending meetings, writing e-mails, or participating in conference calls. He also spends significant amounts of time working through the logistics for his business travel with his coworkers and family. The ugly truth is that he only spends about two hours each day on the "real work" he is being paid big bucks to do. He feels guilty about this but doesn't see an alternative. Tony is proud of his job, but regrets that he does not have more time to spend with his family. These days, he tells himself, business moves fast and you have to move faster—even to the point of exhaustion—to keep up.
Although Tony does not often think about environmental issues, he is worried about the current financial crisis and the impact of higher gas prices on his long commute. Even for an executive, filling the tank a few times a week really adds up. His wife is worried about the impact of working late nights and traveling long distances on Tony's health, given his stress and chronic high blood pressure. Every once in a while, when he allows himself a moment to daydream about a different lifestyle, Tony wonders how his old coworker Greg Smith is doing in his new job.
A year ago, Greg left his position at Alpha Inc. to start a new career with a small environmental firm, Green Corp. Though taking this job with a smaller, less-established company carried some financial risk, staying at his old job would have carried an even greater risk. Because of all the travel required by that job—he had circled the globe twice and visited thirteen countries in just twelve months—he often went weeks at a time without seeing his kids. And, like Tony, he had chosen to endure a ridiculously long commute as the price for a "dream" house in the suburbs. Not surprisingly, his health had begun to suffer. Greg started thinking about what was really important to him, and realized that he needed to spend more time with his family. After many long, heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Greg made a double-switch—he took the new job and the family moved into the city so he could be closer to work.
One thing that impressed Greg right away about his new company was how Green Corp.'s senior leaders "walked the talk" by aligning their environmentally responsive practices with the idea of sustainable living. Being green was simply an organic part of the company's approach to support the health, wellness, and productivity of its employees. Although Greg did take a small pay cut by changing jobs, the number of hours he worked dropped dramatically. And yes, he had given up his previous, palatial office. But in truth, he never really needed all that space. And given that no one at Green Corp. actually had an office, the "status value" of a door of one's own suddenly seemed a bit old-fashioned, if not downright silly.
Greg's new workplace was in a repurposed library building just steps away from the subway station. It had plenty of spots where he could sit and work; however, very few seats were actually assigned to specific people. Employees simply sat in the area that suited the work that they were doing that day. For example, Greg often had impromptu meetings with his team in the café area. Management encouraged employees to work at home or remotely any time that they needed to—as long as they coordinated meetings and the delivery of work with their team. This strategy made it possible for the company to reduce the total square feet required in their building, which in turn provided more funds for perks around the office for employees, for investment in productivity-enhancing technology, and for energy-efficient green roofs (roofs made of native plant materials that prevent water run-off and absorb carbon dioxide) and solar panels. The building was a beautiful place to work. After one year at Green Corp., Greg's typical day looked like this:
7:00 a.m. Wake up, make breakfast, and walk kids to school.
8:15 a.m. Bike to work and shower.
8:30 a.m. Sit at the company café and check e-mail.
9:00 a.m. Write, think, and create new business ideas.
10:00 a.m. Meet with team in the library lounge to discuss meeting with clients in Singapore.
Noon Eat lunch with colleagues on the green roof patio.
1:30 p.m. Check e-mail from patio, using Wi-Fi connection.
2:00 p.m. Attend high-quality videoconference meeting with clients in Singapore.
3:30 p.m. Write, think, and create new business ideas.
6:00 p.m. Bike home and stop by the 'farmers' market on the way.
7:15 p.m. Eat dinner and read bedtime stories with the kids.
9:00 p.m. Plan family trip.
10:00 p.m. Watch the evening news and go to sleep.
When Greg thinks back to his life a year ago, he is struck by how much time he has recovered and how much simpler everyday activities have become. Back then, a conversation with his clients in Singapore would have taken weeks to plan, plus a couple of days in meetings, travel time back and forth, and the resulting brutal jet lag. Now, rather than traveling to visit his clients several times a year as at his old company, he only needed to go to one initial face-to-face meeting. After that, everyone agreed to meet via video-conference. There had been some resistance initially to "going virtual," but this was easily overcome by the resulting benefits. Not only did this high-tech strategy enable Greg's new firm to be competitive in price—minimal travel expenses reduced their fees by 15 percent—it also meant they could meet the project's aggressive schedule ahead of time because they were spending less time traveling and more time working.
Greg now has more time to do quality work, to spend with his family, to eat well, to exercise, and to sleep. To the surprise of his doctor, Greg's lifestyle changes seem to have dramatically lowered his blood pressure. Being part of a company with this progressive, forward-looking philosophy has opened Greg's eyes to the possibilities of working in a different way. Still, while he is more optimistic than ever about his own future, he is greatly concerned about his children's future. He realizes that the changes at Green Corp. are good ones, and is glad to be a part of them. Still, he worries that they are only a drop in the bucket of what would be needed to truly begin to repair the damage humankind is doing to the environment.
Climate change, swelling populations, emerging technology, generational differences, financial necessity, and a host of other factors are causing employers and employees to think differently about the nature of work and how, where, and when they are doing it. Tony is so busy he doesn't even realize that alternative ways of working are possible. Although Greg had already made a giant leap forward personally, he is still eager to make a meta-level environmental impact, one big enough to ensure his children's well-being in the future.
There is no roadmap showing the "right" way to work—every employee is in a different situation, with unique personal and professional considerations. But regardless of the circumstances, environmental and economic forces are at play that are unavoidable and that will require employers and employees to change and adapt to a new business environment.
Driving Forces for Change
According to the Brookings Institution, the United States had about 300 billion square feet of built space (commercial, industrial, and residential buildings) in 2000. By 2030, the nation will need about 427 billion square feet of built space to accommodate growth projections. About 50 percent of that 427 billion will have to be constructed between now and then, accommodating both the new space needed and the replacement of existing buildings. Most of the space built between 2000 and 2030 will be residential (over 100 billion square feet). However, the commercial and industrial building sectors will, percentage wise, have the most new space. Brookings projects that in 2030, over 60 percent of the commercial and industrial building stock in the United States will be less than 30 years old. Even if construction is slowed due to economic concerns, there will continue to be a need to support population growth and shifts, and to replace structures lost to fire, natural disasters, demolitions, and other causes. All this development will have a tremendous impact on our cities, our transportation infrastructure, and our lives.
At the same time, federal, state, and local governments are pursuing ambitious targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and increased energy efficiency. The impact will be staggering. Executive Order S–3–05 in California, for example, requires a reduction in GHGs to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This means that Californians will be required to cut emissions to less than one-sixth of current levels. At the federal level, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) requires all federal buildings to be carbon-neutral—meaning achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing the amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset—by 2030.
Demographic shifts also are dramatically impacting the workforce and making the need for organizations to attract top talent greater than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2006 and 2016 the amount of workers in the 55-and-older group will grow by 46.7 percent, nearly 5.5 times the growth projected for the overall labor force. When this group retires, this will translate into roughly two workers leaving for every one worker entering the workforce. Many people in the post-boomer demographic that companies will so desperately need to court are very savvy about green issues and increasingly will insist on working for companies that pay attention to environmental issues.
Some of the strongest forces driving change stem from the global financial crisis and instability in the marketplace. Investments and spending decisions that would have gone unquestioned a few years ago are now being held up to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. As a result, companies and employees must make careful spending decisions to minimize the impact on the bottom line and to maximize long-term return on investment.
The pressures to keep pace with growth, anticipate future legislation, recruit from a shrinking labor pool, and spend money wisely during an economic downturn are driving many companies to reevaluate how they do business. Whether or not they have sustainability goals in place, market forces are influencing companies to make radical changes in the way they operate. To compete, they must be extremely careful about how they invest in and manage the assets they have—including their people, their buildings, and their financial investments. In short, even companies that couldn't give a hoot about the environment in the abstract will find that attention to all things green will be critical for the bottom line.
The Workplace Challenge
To meet these formidable challenges, employers and employees must do more than drive hybrids and replace light bulbs. Employers will need to loosen up their expectations about how work happens, and employees will need to radically rethink how they work and live. This means, for example, slowing the pace of building construction, and figuring out how to re-imagine use of current space, rather than chronically replace it. It also means traveling more by train, bus, bike, or carpool—or simply traveling a few steps to one's home office. It also means finding more efficient ways to create energy and transport goods and people to and through our cities. But mostly, employers and employees will have to rethink business as usual. Green buildings can only partially solve today's environmental problems. Companies must change not only the buildings where work takes place, but also the rules related to how people use buildings and what "workplace" even means in an increasingly "virtual-enabled" world.
New Ways of Working
The fact that today's knowledge workers are primed and ready to adopt new models for work makes these changes easier. Many employees already are working during off-hours and in multiple environments, whether it's at home or in a café, car, airplane, or satellite office. Roughly 30 million Americans—one-fifth of the nation's workforce—spend significant hours each month working outside a traditional office. This doesn't even count the far larger number who may not work days at a time from home, but who regularly engage in "flash-telecommuting"—everything from a quick check of the BlackBerry while in the grocery line, to leaving work a bit early and finishing that last e-mail from home. Enabled by communication technology and supported by forward-thinking managers, the idea of "work anywhere" is taking hold. Adopting alternative work strategies (nontraditional work arrangements that affect either work schedule or office location) reduces real estate requirements and lessens the amount of construction and energy and water consumption needed. The requirements for office supplies, furniture, and other operational requirements in the office are proportionately decreased.
Companies see great benefits in alternative work strategies—for recruiting, flexibility, and affecting the bottom line. Sprint Nextel, for example, shed 3.3 million square feet of space from 2005 to 2008 through its smart-growth strategy as well as its "work anywhere" environments. Even if your organization is not ready to engage in alternative work arrangements, it is still possible to reap significant cost reductions and positive environmental effects by paying attention to how much energy, water, raw materials, and land it uses on a regular basis and strategically reducing its use of those natural resources.
Consider the Commute
Adopting new ways of working is not just about saving space, nor is it just about the office itself. Many of the overhead costs and environmental effects of workers come from the act of getting to work or facilitating single occupancy vehicle use. One government agency recently estimated the cost of building a new parking structure in its historic building to be roughly $100,000 per space. Even if the organization does not provide parking, annual parking reimbursement can be expensive—up to $9,000 per space in midtown Manhattan. The environmental impacts of transportation, particularly the impact of single occupancy vehicles, are significant. It turns out that the commute to and from work requires more energy than actually occupying office space. Specifically, for the average U.S. commercial office building, transportation energy use to and from that building actually exceeds building energy use by 30 percent. When compared with newer, more energy-efficient buildings, transportation energy use exceeds the building energy use by nearly 140 percent. All of this driving has both an economic and environmental cost.
Smart companies are embracing transportation demand management, a comprehensive approach to encouraging individuals to reduce frequent automobile use outside peak periods and to reduce the distance and duration of their trips.
Excerpted from The Green Workplace by Leigh Stringer. Copyright © 2010 HOK, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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