cropped jazz hands

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

July 13, 2022 Digital Workplace
Annette Corbett
By Annette Corbett

Organizations tend to have a high rate of content churn — think latest news, D&I initiatives, instructional guides — much of which underpins a great employee experience. But as we also established in my previous article, once content no longer serves a purpose, it ends up languishing in content repositories, which drastically increases the carbon footprint of digital.

The Content Scrapyard = The Upside Down

It might help to think of this monolithic content scrapyard as the upside down — a parallel universe to the content which we interact with regularly — and, let's face it, very bad news for the environment.

The "out of sight, out of mind" nature of this content means it's rarely a priority and, more often than not, has snowballed to such herculean proportions that it requires a project and additional resources to tackle.

So, in the absence of a budget or an army of volunteers to address the problem, how can we make a dent both as part of our broader role in the organization and as individuals?

Tackling Old Unnecessary Content Is as Easy as E-S-G

It's well documented that to elicit any kind of meaningful behavioral change, senior management must first walk the walk, leading by example. So how do you go about raising awareness of the upside down and the consequences of inaction?

It’s easy as E-S-G.

ESG — Environmental, Social and Governance — is a priority for most organizations. The "environmental" aspect of ESG relates to carbon footprint and carries particular gravitas.

Tech Monitor has written about the recent addition of digital sustainability to the umbrella of ESG values (the weight of your content being a key component), so, theoretically half the battle is won. What you need now are contextual insights: evidence-based research on your org's digital outputs which you can present to senior management together with other (unexpected) benefits of a content clean-up (e.g. reduced budget, clearer more navigable intranet and website pages).

So, what might these carbon hotspots look like?

Related Article: Is It Time to Evaluate Your Environmental, Social and Governance Policy?

Company Website: Marketing, Business Development, External Communications

I’m confident this will be a hotspot for most organizations. I have never worked on any digital project where “more videos!” “bigger, better graphics!” “colors that pop!” (grrr) and something infinitely more aesthetically pleasing, wasn’t a requirement.

I guess it’s the difference between spending your day looking at a kaleidoscopic work of art or a pencil drawing because, seriously, that’s where the difference ends.

The pencil drawing has all the functionality of the fancy artwork, is an equally effective complement to your digital workplace tools but doesn’t generate a hole in the atmosphere the size of Camp Nou. Did you know that by removing the superfluous baubles from your website, you have made it easier to navigate, accessible to a much broader audience and less bamboozling (don’t take my word for it, check out the GDS guidelines)?

Website Carbon offers a nifty resource that measures the existing carbon footprint of your website, as well as the impact on the environment over time. A quick calculation shows us that the BBC is responsible for pages that are 74% dirtier than the average, emits 0.96g of C02 with every page visit and over the course of a year (with 10,000 monthly views) could generate enough energy to power an electric car.

Time to get clean with your digital, BBC.

Related Article: Minimum Viable Office Is the Future

Intranet: Internal Communications, Marketing, Knowledge Management, IT

Does our content really need jazz hands?

In keeping with the theme above, managing intranets teaches you a thing or two about the perceived importance of expansive dialogue and use of media to highlight importance, generate momentum or galvanize readers into action. The truth is far less sexy.

A page weighted with images not only takes longer to load (resulting in a poor user experience) but requires more energy for data transfer, according to this article in Wired.

Wholegrain Digital also recommend using video sparingly due to the data and process intensity of this medium. Where possible, disable the auto-play function so videos don’t automatically begin streaming and encourage users to download videos and watch them “offline” (on the caveat they delete them afterwards!).

Whichever function your intranet sits in, someone will be able to provide an overall picture of intranet site sizes, when data was last accessed and, if used in conjunction with analytics, could provide a case for a content audit (more on that below).

Related Article: Eliminate These 3 Types of Waste From Your Digital Workplace With Lean Management

Microsoft Teams: IT

Putting Microsoft back under the spotlight, let's look at Teams (with SharePoint riding shotgun), which comprises a myriad of ways to interact and collaborate with colleagues. Microsoft has provided a handy storage guide which suggests that each Team site can provide storage of up to 25TB for files.

Each. Team. Site.

If you’re wondering why there are no safeguards around this potentially bottomless pit of content, many organizations are still figuring out the optimum employee experience, post COVID. This includes an edict around when to use which collaboration channel for what, strategy and governance models for collaboration channels (with Teams sites still created without any due diligence).

You can request statistics from IT on how many Teams sites have been created and their corresponding storage which may help inform any ongoing discussions around governance. Here is where I would recommend speaking to your knowledge management function whose insights could be gold.

In the meantime, from a personal perspective, think about whether you need to create that Team site, and if you do, how you can ensure it doesn’t remain a dumping ground for various attempts at that Photoshop image, half-finished, draft documents or a holding space for the content you aren’t sure what to do with.

Email: IT Again (Sorry!)

While IT can also provide storage statistics for company email, this should complement high-level research on user habits via a survey to help contextualize the data (as well as getting people to think about what are probably autonomous response habits).

For example, research conducted by Ovo Energy suggests each email you send will rack up an average of 1g of carbon emissions (excluding any attachments) and each of us send an average of 64 emails a day. How many of those emails are courtesy responses for which we are in the UK are famed for e.g., "thanks," "no problem," "have a great evening"?

We’re all personally accountable for email outputs and can minimize the weight of those messages by sharing content via links. Alternatively, we can ask ourselves whether we need to send an email at all?

Since channel settings, email notifications and Team sites are usually actioned in IT, this is also a great opportunity to highlight the carbon impact of multiple notifications via communication apps.

The Importance of Auditing Your Content

My first experience of a content audit was a combination of soul destroying and serendipitous.

Soul destroying because I had to single-handedly audit content across an entire intranet platform manually. Serendipitous because at the end of those long four months I knew more about the organizational content, site structure and content habits of the employees than anyone else in the company.

What you learn from drawing back the curtain on your deepest, darkest content repositories can truly inform your content strategy and governance because you are basing it on existing user habits.

Having completed that contract, I went on to present "the why" of content audits at Intranet Now, with suggested templates for broad-based document repositories.

Anyone from the world of comms reading this article will be familiar with Jenni Field, an internal communications expert who has also discussed the importance of auditing from an internal communications perspective and how this can help inform your channels strategy.

Planning how often you do these content audits and by who will depend on many factors, including the publishing model of your organization and resources. But any intranet strategy should factor them in as they provide benefits not just to the environment but to the IT budget. There is also the none too shabby improvement to search results and site navigation.

Related Article: How Well Do You Understand Your Content Processing Pipeline?

The Most Digitally Sustainable Content of All?

... is the content you didn’t create.

About the Author

I have delivered knowledge related content and internal communications (often based on transformation initiatives) applying content design principles — in particular, GDS — and UX writing to provide a relevant, informed, and positive user experience for external and internal audiences. My background includes product management and I'm a keen advocate of “clean digital” practices — to minimize our carbon footprint and promote sustainability — across intranet and content channels.


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