The pandemic has made us rethink our lives, including how we treat the planet, in a way most of us haven't had to before.
Cassandra Kirk, head of design and strategy at Axiom Workplaces, explains, "We're more in tune with our families and how we operate on this earth, and that's then driving into the workspace as well."
This new awareness has accelerated calls from employees to make more impactful commitments to combat the climate crisis.
Sustainability has fast become a pressing business reality in all facets of organisations - from suppliers to certifications; the sustainable workplace is on the agenda.
Staff demand action
Jonas Bengtsson, CEO and co-founder of sustainability consultancy EDGE Environment, noticed that in Australia, climate awareness was already on the upswing with the widespread bush fire devastation in 2019 and early 2020.
"It was so closely connected with climate that it was in our face," he explains.
Shortly after, when the pandemic hit, Bengtsson said, "We initially thought COVID-19 would decrease climate in importance, that businesses would be focussed on surviving organisationally and financially - that they would cut back on efforts, ambition and funding in climate action and sustainability. But from an industry and corporate perspective, we've actually seen the absolute opposite."
The people agree. Deloitte research uncovered that 40% of Millenials and Gen Z believe people's commitment to take action for environmental and climate issues will be more significant, post-pandemic. And this filters into the choices people are making about who they work for.
As Bengtsson puts it, "Staff and stakeholders are now driven by higher purpose more than ever before."
Sustainability has never been more attractive to current and potential employees.
"The younger generation select workplaces and employers based on whether they stand for the right cause, whether they do the right thing, whether they take action on climate change," Bengtsson explains and the research backs him up:
49% of Millenials and Gen Z say their personal ethics inform the types of work they're willing to do (and 44% of them have made choices over the kind of work they'd be willing to do based on these ethics in the past two years).
"While it's always been important, it's become more important now - probably because it's more tangible. It's not something abstract or happening in 15 years. It's happening now," says Bengtsson.
It's clear a meaningful response to climate change is critical to attracting and retaining top talent.
5 steps towards a more sustainable workplace
An essential and very conspicuous sustainability indicator for many organisations is their physical workplace. From building certifications, to design choices, down to the choice of coffee supplier - the office is becoming a beacon of sustainability.
1. Reduce, reuse and recycle
The old mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle holds true for more sustainable workplaces now and into the future. Reduce where you can: ditch the paper and go digital, provide organic bins to reduce food waste, introduce electricity-saving lighting and electronics - the possibilities are endless. Reuse what you can: think about replacing single-use coffee cups, crockery and cutlery for reusable items. Recycle paper, batteries, electronics and more.
2. Choose sustainable suppliers
"There's also a lot of awareness in the last couple of years around supply chains, modern slavery and labour conditions and how responsible organisations are," says Bengtsson.
With heightened awareness, it's unsurprising that Kirk says it's "little moments" like clocking an unsustainable supplier that makes "people question why you do what you do". Ensure these moments don't happen by selecting suppliers who align with your organisational values and by developing a sustainable purchasing policy. Do your research, rely on educated expertise, and look for certifications (like the Rainforest Alliance or UTZ certification for sustainable coffee).
3. Understand, measure and reduce your carbon footprint
Once you know the size of your business’ footprint, you can work to reduce it to become a more sustainable workplace.
"Organisations should not only get a really clear understanding of what their emissions are, but have a target to reduce that and make a commitment to it," says Bengtsson.
Bengtsson says over the last few years, organisations have been taking it a step further and setting a Science-Based Target. This is a public commitment to reduce your business's emissions in line with a 1.5°C level of global warming.
4. Sustainable design and construction choices
It's not just at the 'working in the office' phase that organisations can reduce, reuse and recycle - this ethos should be baked into the design and construction phase too.
Kirk says that at Axiom Workplaces, while they think about what can be recycled, reused or repurposed, their commitment to sustainability goes beyond this and into their workplace designs.
"We plan in a way that ensures that the building usage does not tap into high energy. For example, we don't put a big meeting room that's going to have 20 people in the West facing corner where the air conditioning is going to have to run double-time to make it comfortable," says Kirk.
Another design choice Axiom leans on heavily to create more sustainable workplaces is biophilia, or bringing the natural world in. Bengtsson agrees, saying that sustainable workplaces include lots of plants in the office which is not only a "sustainable attribute but also pays back in terms of employee wellbeing and productivity."
5. Get certified
Bengtsson says leading organisations certify their offices to several different certifications, including the Well Building Standard (focussed on the health and wellbeing of the office occupants). He also mentions other certification schemes which look at "construction materials, energy consumption, the ecological footprint of the building and so on", like the Green Star certification by the Green Building Council of Australia.
He explains that "third party certifications demonstrate a commitment and investing in providing more sustainable offices."
The future is circular
While the present is undoubtedly focused intently on sustainability, we wanted to know what the future holds for organisations and offices.
Bengtsson expects "there to be zero-emissions associated with the office - or better."
"The circular economy will be critical. We're not expecting waste-free, but there will be no waste bins because everything is designed and procured for circularity. Everything will be reused, repurposed, or at the very least recycled - there simply won't be another option."