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How to Make Your Digital Workplace More Environmentally Friendly

April 26, 2021 Digital Workplace
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Digitization of business processes has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. In fact, the Gartner 2020 Digital Workplace Survey showed that 68% of survey respondents agreed that more C-level executives had been involved in digital workplace initiatives since COVID-19.

However, that acceleration of digital transformation comes with an environmental cost. Increased use of electricity in residential areas where employees are working at home is one. So is more electronic waste. Those discarded electronic devices have to go somewhere.

On the other hand, a digital workplace represents a greener alternative for others because working from home or using co-working spaces reduces the need for carbon-spewing vehicles.

As digital workplaces become more sophisticated and working remotely as a workforce strategy matures, what does it all mean for the environment? Will this be an environmental boon or simply a shift in the status quo?

The Case for the Green Digital Workplace

If you consider how much carbon emission can be cut with fewer drivers in the streets, the reason why the remote-enabled digital workplace is considered greener becomes pretty clear.

If implemented right, a fully enabled digital workplace means employees don't need to travel or commute nearly as much to collaborate and get work done. That potentially means less traffic on the road. One employee can reduce 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year by not using a vehicle, according to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The cumulative effect of more workers operating remotely in the digital workplace means a significant decrease in vehicle-driven carbon emissions worldwide.

But besides reduced emissions, there are other advantages. According to the EPA, paper makes up 25% of the waste in the United States. Given their digital nature, digital workplaces don't require as many paper documents for business transactions and can rely predominately on electronic records. 

Related Article: Is Remote Work Good or Bad for the Environment?

The Dark Environmental Side of the Digital Workplace

There are plenty of benefits to things like fewer cars on the road, but it depends to a great deal on governments to adopt supportive policies, said Jana Galbraith, director of people experience at Wellington, New Zealand-based Xero.

Countries like the Netherlands where biking and electric cars are the primary mode of transportation are seeing positive environmental effects, she said. But some environmental workplace factors are more the result of geography than policy.

"In more temperate countries where heat or air conditioning is used less often, there is less environmental effect in working from home versus in an office," Galbraith said.

One significant environmental problem with the move to the digital workplace is how much carbon computers consume. The more computers in use, the more electricity that is needed. Since electricity isn't generated following environmentally friendly practices in many countries, increased electricity consumption ramps up carbon dioxide emissions.

The rise of digital currency, or bitcoin, is one example of the environmental cost of increased computing. Production of bitcoin, or mining, requires intensive computation and a large amount of energy, more electricity per transaction than other transaction methods. According to one study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, bitcoin mining operations released an estimated 13 million metrics tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Regular business practice is no exception. According to one estimate, the use of high-definition video calls for work meetings is the equivalent of driving 23 kilometers.

Tips to Make Your Workspace More Eco-friendly

Green computing promises to offset the power consumption of IT infrastructure and its contribution to the world's carbon footprint. But there remains a ways to go in the quest for alternatives to unsustainable trends in energy consumption. 

That doesn't mean companies should wait. C-suite executives should be aware of how important it is for sustainability initiatives to reach beyond marketing efforts and into the entire company culture, from the CEO on down to the front desk. Words matter so companies should be thoughtful, not only with what they say but also with how they say it. 

Here are a few tips for a greener workplace, both digital and physical:

  • Reduce waste: Cut down on disposable cutlery in the office and promote the use of reusable mugs and steel cutlery.
  • Analyze current hardware: Chances are that you're using more power if you're using outdated electronics. Modern devices are designed to use fewer resources than electronics from even five years ago.
  • Be mindful of the thermostat: One degree can make a difference and cost savings add up. Besides, by using less electricity, there's less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • Build offices close to talent: If most of your workers live in a certain area, consider moving your office there. "Bringing the workplace to where talent lives eliminates long commutes to cities, which in return lessens pollution, oil consumption, and provides a better quality of life for employees," said Raju Vegensa, COO at Chennai, India-based Zoho Corporation
  • Reduce electricity consumption: Turn off devices and unplug them once you're done using them to reduce residual electricity consumption. 
  • Work in well-lit areas: If you're at home, choose a well-lit place to set up your work station. Take advantage of this freedom to work where there is more sunlight so you can maximize the use of natural light. 

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