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What's Driving the Move to the 'Eco' Digital Workplace?

August 17, 2022 Digital Workplace
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan

As an increasing number of employees are being asked to return to the physical workplace amid a persistent talent shortage, workers find themselves in a better position to make demands of their employers.

While compensation surely ranks among the most common demands, new research from Sweden-based personal care product company Essity shows demand for "green" office spaces and more eco-friendly business practices is on the rise. According to the survey of 2,000 US office workers who have returned to the office at least part time, three-quarters say they want their employer to provide a more environmentally friendly office.

Essity's findings show the COVID-19 pandemic played a marked role in this, with 51% of employees surveyed saying they've become more eco-conscious while working from home during the lockdown, and another 46% saying they are more aware today of how "green" their workplace is compared to the pre-pandemic era. More than half (58%) said they feel their office is "shamefully eco-unfriendly."

But given the amount of energy used in the digital workplace, is a "green" office space even feasible?

The App Impact

One-third of workers participating in Essity's research said they believe the introduction of eco-friendly practices within their workplace is usually an afterthought. The result is that many companies and employees are not aware of the emissions their digital devices are producing daily, Yassine Zaied, chief strategy officer of Boston-based software company Nexthink, said.

Citing research the company published earlier this year, Zaied said, collectively, gaming, communications applications, such as Zoom and Slack, and streaming services like Spotify can generate up to 33 tons of CO2 emissions per year. The environmental impact of this is staggering. To put it into perspective, the report notes it would take 300 trees per year to absorb this level of emissions from the atmosphere.

“Many employees and employers tend to believe that eliminating their commute has drastically reduced their carbon emissions,” Zaied said. “However, the technology that they are using could be worse for the environment than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic."

The report illustrates the environmental impact of home computing: A computer that takes longer than five minutes to start can produce, at minimum, 450 tons of CO2 emissions per year — or the equivalent of 50,636 gallons of gasoline. Of the 3.5 million computers that Nexthink analyzed, 34% averaged over five minutes to load fully.

Related Article: Your Content Has a Carbon Footprint: Here’s How to Tackle the Problem

Does You Organization Know Its Digital Consumption? 

There's no doubt that technology has an environmental impact, but organizations can help create more sustainable workplaces by educating employees on green computing habits, such as closing applications that are not in use, turning off devices outside of office hours and unplugging devices once they are fully charged.

Understanding the digital consumption of the organization on both a macro and micro level is one of the most important steps to understanding how a company can optimize and reduce its overall footprint.

“Insight into how employees are using and engaging with digital tools helps identify opportunities for improvement and can help drive strategy for implementing more sustainable practices,” Zaied said.

Kathy Rudy, partner and chief data and analytics officer with global technology research and advisory firm ISG, said she believes it is feasible — and even necessary — for employers to become more eco-conscious in the workplace. The first step, she said, is to baseline current energy consumption across all sources looking not only at the amount of energy consumed but also the type of energy.

The next step is to explore alternative energy options that are greener, such as wind, solar, nuclear, hydraulic and see where you can make changes. This includes water, electric and air conditioning emissions in buildings, company cars and data centers or hosting partners.

Once the company has a baseline of its consumption, Rudy said it should commit to a measurable target for reduction and carbon offsets — and set a timeframe. Then, communicate the initiative to employees and provide updates on progress and results.

Related Article: Minimum Viable Office Is the Future

Paper Waste

In addition to electricity and energy usage, companies also face challenges around paper and plastic waste. Digitizing documents is an important component in digital transformation. By making digitized records a priority, organizations can take stock of their processes and work to decrease paper usage — and its carbon footprint. Part of this process should include a content inventory, to establish what records are still necessary to digitize and which are ready for disposal.

Most companies also spend significant amounts on office and paper storage space. Through the digitization of documents and the move toward a permanent hybrid workspace, employers can in theory downsize office space.

"There is another upside to digitization too: Companies can decrease the paper they store in file cabinets, improving 'green' work processes. Less office space equals less energy usage (and costs) for lighting, heat and A/C,” said Sunnyvale, Calif.-based PFU America's technology evangelist Scott Francis. “While companies may never totally eliminate the use of paper, being less paper dependent is a step in the right direction.”

Related Article: Eliminate These 8 Types of Waste From Your Digital Workplace With Lean Management

The Greening of the Office Space

The importance of green office spaces is clear for supporting climate initiatives, but a company’s sustainability values are also directly connected to its ability to recruit Gen Z talent. As more employees head back to the office, even under a hybrid model, companies that show their commitment to making progress in creating a “green” workspace will have a winning edge.

And as digital transformation continues, sustainable initiatives are likely to accelerate. Tech companies are hard at work implementing a range of policies to reduce their energy expenditure. These include installing modern lighting solutions, such as motion sensors and timers in offices, and expanding workplace practices like green coding.

But the burden doesn't rest squarely on employers' shoulders. Maciej Dziergwa, founder and CEO of Poland-based software company STX Next, said efforts should be made to also help employees become more eco-conscious on a personal level, particularly those still frequently working from home. This means providing comprehensive guidance on how employees can minimize their energy usage without significantly affecting their well-being.

Injecting a bit of fun can broaden the appeal of these initiatives. For instance, employers can find creative and interactive low-cost ways to build a sustainable mindset into the company culture. Initiatives such as cycle-to-work days can help employees spend less on fuel and actively engage in the process of a greener office experience.

Most importantly, it’s crucial to lead by example, said Dziergwa. "Sustainable companies can inspire their employees to make more conscious energy decisions at home, which will bring major benefits for the planet during this energy crisis and any others down the line," he said.

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