Building a Sustainable Workplace

People spend most of their time at work. In fact, it may even be fair to conclude that some people spend more time at work than at their own homes. Providing a healthy and sustainable work environment makes a long workday more enjoyable for employees. A healthy and sustainable workplace correlates to happier employees and, as a result, increased employee productivity, and fewer work-related illnesses, injuries and accidents. This, in turn, could mean greater profits for companies.

The Benefits of a Sustainable Workplace

The ideal of a sustainable workplace used to be dismissed as “feel-good” wishful thinking. The goal of a business, after all, is to generate profits for its stakeholders. Open offices, paying minimum wages, shifting schedules—these are some of the things companies do to reduce overhead expenses and, ultimately, increase earnings. If conventional thinking is to be applied, it may be unrealistic to expect a company-sponsored canteen to serve higher-priced healthy salads and low-fat frozen yogurt, or a retail corporation to increase the wages of two million employees by $3 per hour.

A growing number of companies are realizing, however, that a sustainable workplace is beneficial and profitable in the long run. Switching to T5 fluorescent lighting or installing skylights means lowered electricity bills. Using passive heating and cooling, and encouraging employees to dress appropriately for the season (instead of setting the thermostat at 68°F/20°C year-round) can likewise bring about the same result. Healthier food in the office cafeteria can translate to greater employee productivity due to increased energy levels and fewer sick days.

Increased Market Value

Recent studies show that companies investing in sustainable workplaces perform better than companies that don’t. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2008 report Doing Good: Business and the Sustainability Challenge , there is a correlation between stock performance and corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance. The report surveyed 1,254 senior business executives and determined that companies that paid more attention to sustainability issues had the highest share-price growth from 2005 to 2007. In sharp contrast, the firms that performed poorly paid little or no attention to sustainability issues.

Increased stakeholder vigilance is a major contributing factor to the link between stock performance and CSR performance. The Internet and its low-cost collaborative platforms have given stakeholders light-speed access to information on almost every corporation in the world. Recent examples include YouTube videos alerting consumers about perceived undesirable business practices. As a result, stakeholders today are more readily aware about the companies they may or may not want to support.

Improved Talent Recruitment and Retention

By 2025, Millennials – those born between 1976 and 2001 – will comprise 75% of the total global workforce, according to Hill+Knowlton . Companies must adjust their policies to attract and retain Millennial talent. What are Millennials looking for in a job? Opportunities that will allow them to make a difference in the society they live in.

Unlike previous generations, which prioritized money, power and prestige, Millennials are more prone to work for the causes they support. In research and creative agency Achieve and the Case Foundation ’s 2014 Millennial Impact Report , at least 50% of the Millennial respondents said they considered a company’s involvement in various causes as a motivating factor for seeking and accepting a job. Companies do not necessarily have to enact direct purposes such as “creating clean water supplies to drought-stricken countries in Africa” or “providing microloans to disadvantaged women in India.” They should, however, set goals like dedication to CSR or a drive to meaningfully support employees.

Integrating social causes into business operations (i.e., building a sustainable workplace) may seem frivolous at first to some, but is a good investment for the future. Companies get to hire new people and are able to retain the good people they already have. According to a January 2008 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 61% of employees were more likely to stay at a company because of the organization’s sustainability program. Simply put, a sustainable workplace helps companies save thousands of dollars in hiring, training, compensation, benefits, etc.

Greater Consumer Confidence

Whether or not a company is sustainable plays some importance to consumers as well. In its study of nearly 1,800 Millennials, the 2006 Cone Millennial Cause Study discovered that 69% of the respondents consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop. In addition, 45% of respondents said they are likely to boycott the products and services of a company that is not socially or environmentally responsible.

Supporting this research, the most popular companies among consumers today are the ones that have ventured into the sustainability market. US organic food and beverage company Clif Bar has an onsite, full-service gym, offers a flexible workweek and gives employees paid time off to do volunteer work . Biopharmaceutical firm Amgen encourages its workers to bike to work three days a week in exchange for a USD 50 voucher (redeemable at various retailers) . Google offers its employees “green” perks such as biodiesel shuttles, healthier meals and workspaces that maximize natural air and sunlight .

Increased Income, Profit and Productivity

A sustainable workplace increases employee productivity by reducing work-related illnesses, injuries and accidents. Healthier food in company cafeterias can lead to a decreased risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Integrating safety precautions into daily business operations (e.g., installing railings on stairs and proper waste segregation) lessens the likelihood of injuries and accidents.

An unsustainable workplace can result in tremendous cost to organizations. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2011, occupational accidents and diseases kill about 2.3 million workers worldwide each year . In 2009, the ILO said that the direct and indirect costs of these accidents and diseases (e.g., lost working time, medical expenses and workers’ compensation) amount to USD 2.8 trillion (roughly 4% of the world’s annual GDP) . In 2009, the national cost of work-related injuries and illnesses in the US reached USD 250 billion—about 1.8% of the US’ GDP that year .

Increased Economic Activity

Companies rely on natural resources to produce goods and services. Factories cannot operate without needed water and it would be impossible for farms to thrive without fertile soil to till. A sustainable workplace ensures business continuity by saving or restoring natural resources. More natural resources mean more goods and services to be generated in the future.

Ideas for Building a Sustainable Workplace

Following are some ways that you can begin to build a sustainable workplace:

Sustainable Dining

Instead of processed food, stock your cafeteria and vending machines with healthier food options. You can also encourage cafeteria personnel to substitute plastic and Styrofoam containers with reusable dishware.

Virtual Meetings

Instead of meeting your clients or partners personally, hold web conferences. A web conference saves time, effort and other resources (e.g., gasoline, water, electricity, etc.), and actually allows you to include more participants if location has been an inhibiting factor.

Electronics Management

There are a variety of practices you can implement in order to reduce your company’s energy use and, therefore, electric bill. If you don’t have automatic timers or motion sensors installed, place stickers near light switches and office machinery, reminding employees to turn them off when not in use. Ensure regular cleaning and maintenance of office machinery. Dirty and/or poorly-kept machinery consumes more energy than clean, well-kept ones. If possible, use laptop computers instead of standard desktop computers, as laptops are more energy-efficient. Replace old appliances and machineries with new, energy-efficient ones.

Green Purchasing

Where it makes sense, consider making “greener” purchases for your workplace by renting or leasing equipment instead of buying it. Doing so means less production and, ultimately, less consumption of natural resources (in the form of raw materials). When possible, buy second-hand office equipment that is still in good condition and energy efficient. Spend time assessing what your office really needs. Encourage employees to recycle and include guides on what materials should go in which bins. As much as possible, buy environmentally-friendly cleaning products, paints, furnishings, office supplies and décor. This goes a long way towards addressing air quality concerns and preventing “ sick building syndrome .”

Workplace Wellness

You can encourage your employees to be healthier by creating exercise programs that can be done during the workday. If it’s not already regulated by your federal, state or local government, implement a no-smoking policy on company premises. You can also establish an information drive regarding tobacco cessation. Encourage employees to take the stairs instead of the elevator or the escalator. Select worksites that are near amenities such as gyms, bus stations and parks. Allow employees to use standing desks. Consider an incentive program for carpooling, bicycling or taking public transportation.

Sustainable Supply Chain

Engaging a sustainable supply chain is an important step to ensure the sustainability of your overall business. While a longer-term endeavor, map out your supply chain to identify which processes are unsustainable and should be improved. Work with your suppliers to encourage and incentivize sustainable business practices. Include sustainability as a selection criterion for choosing new suppliers. Use sustainable raw materials. Avoid raw materials that contain hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium. When possible, use recycled materials.


Investing in a sustainable workplace should be considered an investment that will save your company more in the future in terms of increased worker productivity and plentiful natural resources. The most successful companies are forward-looking—they take into consideration the state of their businesses in the decades to come, and invest in sustainable workplaces to ensure business continuity.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) helps organizations recognize business drivers for sustainability practices and offers cost-effective environmental and sustainability management solutions. FCS provides guidance on industry best practices and can help you with your sustainability programs.