If you look up from your desk, can you glance out of your window or look past your cubicle wall to see a restful area of greenery? Maybe it’s a small park outside or indoor greenery made up of trees or simply a plant on a desk.
Companies are increasingly incorporating green spaces as their environmental focus evolves from simple recycling efforts to a more holistic sustainability approach, and as they do, they find those changes benefit both employees and companies.
Environmental concerns spur start of movement
Concern for the environment is not new, but in the last ten to fifteen years, interest has grown, according to Leigh Stringer, workplace strategist for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm. Several factors have driven increased interest, she said in an interview with HR Dive, including the entrance of millennials, who are vocal about the environment, as well as the publicity given to environmental activists like Al Gore.
Aside from individual interest, pressure to focus on the environment has come about because of environmental regulations, said Carolina Miranda, founder of Cultivating Capital, a firm that consults on sustainable business practices. New recycling and composting regulations in states like California force businesses to pay attention, Miranda said in an interview.
But beyond external influences, companies are getting on board because they can reap financial benefits, Miranda said. "In many cases, there’s a strong business case to be made to implement energy initiatives, so it really became a no brainer for them to implement different practices."
"Now a lot of companies recognize that the triple bottom line is really what we’re talking about, recognizing what’s good for the environment, good for people, good financially," Stringer said. "All of those trends have really blossomed. When you’re making money, you wonder how many other good things can you do; how many other things can you help."
Benefits of being green
Workplace green spaces can help employee performance; academic research suggests that green spaces can relieve mental fatigue, which can improve employee work performance, satisfaction, learning, inquisitiveness and alertness.
When you add other "green" building elements, such as improved lighting, ventilation, filtration and building materials, employees' overall cognitive function can improve significantly. In one study performed by the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, subjects were tested on crisis response, information usage and strategy while in a conventional environment and in a green environment. The results showed scores were 97% higher for crisis response, 172% higher for information usage and 183% higher for strategy in a green environment than in a conventional environment.
A case study in holistic sustainability
Green spaces, along with recycling, composting, reducing paper products, and offering public transportation incentives for employees, are all part of the bigger picture of sustainability. And as companies begin to improve sustainability practices, they may be in for a larger cultural shift.
When United Technologies Corporation (UTC) built its Center for Intelligent Building in Florida this year, the new construction was designed to be a sustainability showcase that met LEED Platinum standards. Every aspect of the process was intended to be energy efficient and created with employee wellbeing in mind, Mary Milmoe, vice president, communications and marketing for UTC Climate, Controls & Security, said in an interview with HR Dive. The project included planned green spaces, sit-and-stand desks, water, lighting and filtration systems — even ensuring that computer monitors are positioned so they do not block employees' view to windows.
"People think about the cost of the building but the reality is people spend 90% of their time indoors. Green buildings affect the people who work inside them and the people who live around them," Milmoe said.
When employees moved into the new building, the new location was not the only change, said Nadia Villeneuve, vice president and CHRO, UTC Climate, Controls & Security. "We were also trying to drive a culture shift within the company — more open, less hierarchical, more collaborative," she said in an interview.
That involved looking at how to lay out workspace in the building to make it easier for teams to gather and to make the environment have more aspects of home, with couches, a kitchen island and a cafeteria that opens to the patio and green spaces. The company also embraced a near paperless environment and heightened recycling efforts, Milmoe said
Perhaps the most difficult driver of change was during the move itself. Employees' belongings had to fit in a crate or box because there was no storage in the new space. That made it necessary to emphasize purging, prioritizing and digitizing, Villeneuve said.
The bigger picture of sustainability
As companies continue to look at improving their environment, they also begin to look at additional ways to sustain their employee population, Miranda said. For example, the type of benefits companies offer can relieve stress, and taking care of employees can increase employee engagement and sustainability, she said.
Companies that are leading the way in sustainability are integrating the concept in all areas of the organization, and HR is a big part of that, Miranda said. Recruiters might even opt to include sustainability responsibilities in job descriptions, performance reviews and training budgets.
Where other companies can start
Not every company can start from the ground up like UTC did; budgets and priorities may limit what steps some businesses can take. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make changes to improve sustainability.
Companies can make strides improving energy efficiency with updated lighting and renewable energy, Miranda said. Waste reduction, including recycling and composting, is another common place for companies to start. And as employers make strides in one area, they may find they are only at the beginning of their sustainability continuum.
"There is so much awareness about those two areas but those really aren’t the only areas related to sustainability," Miranda said. "Companies start there, then realize there’s a lot more that they can do, so it ends up being a continuum as they embark on this path of sustainability. After energy efficiency, waste reduction, [companies look at] what to do to conserve water, minimize chemicals, evaluate and reduce carbon footprint." This can result in changes to employee policies for areas like employee travel, like providing incentives to encourage employees to bike or walk to work.
Companies that want to make strides should start with what can get done, experts suggest. It may be as simple as adding a plant to desks, switching to green, non-toxic cleaning products to wipe down the break room, creating a multi-level green team to look at how to best develop a program, or looking at LEED best practices for ideas.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified United Technologies Corporation. We regret the error.