How to create an eco-friendly office

Many UK businesses are trying to reduce plastic waste and enhance energy efficiency in sustainable workplaces, but change is more difficult in a shared office space

Banking giant Goldman Sachs told its 6,000 London employees: “Plastic isn’t as recyclable as many think. That’s why we’re eliminating it.” Ubiquitous plastic bottles sold from the bank’s vending machines, cafés and shops have been replaced by glass, aluminium and cardboard alternatives as part of a multi-faceted drive to make the business more environmentally responsible.

Goldman Sachs will move to a brand new European headquarters in London this summer; an eco-friendly office building with a top sustainability rating and a green roof garden that will use an advanced rainwater harvesting and filtration system to irrigate plants and reduce water consumption. Meanwhile large numbers of car parking spaces for senior executives have been replaced with extensive provision for cyclists.

Tackling workplace plastic is a good first step for the eco-friendly office

Such initiatives offer a glimpse of how the future eco-friendly office might evolve if companies and employees take seriously their responsibility to preserve the planet, reduce their carbon footprint and cut plastics usage. Goldman Sachs reckons it is on track to remove 85 per cent of the plastics it consumes by the end of 2019.

“Reducing our reliance on single-use plastics is a natural next step in our commitment to divert 100 per cent of our business waste from landfills by 2020,” says Kyung-Ah Park, head of the environmental markets group at Goldman Sachs. “It’s our small, daily habits that make the biggest difference; using a reusable cup or bottle whenever possible, carefully separating trash from recycling and only requesting plastic cutlery when we need it.”

Goldman Sachs is not alone. Following the airing of Blue Planet II and the growing awareness of the harmful effects of plastic waste on marine life, many businesses have looked to cut single-use plastics as part of broader sustainability programmes.

Law firm Allen & Overy has eliminated disposable cups, plastic bottles and takeaway boxes from its London office. It estimates that it used more than 6.5 million disposable catering items in 2018 and plans to donate the money it saves from buying and disposing of packaging, amounting to roughly £100,000, to two conservation charities.

“By making these small changes to our catering waste, we can make a big difference to our environmental impact and do our bit to help safeguard our planet,” says Allen & Overy partner Paul Flanagan.

Making workplaces more energy efficient is essential

Reducing plastics usage is only one component of the drive towards a more eco-friendly office, however. Heating, lighting, electricity and gas consumption all play a role in the overall impact an office might have on the environment, while food consumption and business travel must also be considered if a company is to tackle sustainability at all levels.

Turning a conventional workplace into a sustainable, eco-friendly office may be more complex than reducing plastics, as it requires management buy-in, budget and long-term planning. And as many businesses occupy only part of larger office buildings, bringing about meaningful change can be difficult.

“It can be very hard to tackle carbon emissions in shared office buildings because individuals and companies often can’t make significant changes to the infrastructure or energy efficiency. There is still lots that can be done, and it comes down to identifying hotspots of energy consumption and engaging employees to think more about these issues,” says Jonathan Winston, occupier support manager for Low Carbon Workplace.

Since 2010, Low Carbon Workplace – a partnership between the Carbon Trust, fund manager Columbia Threadneedle Investments and property developer Stanhope – has acquired and refurbished nine commercial office buildings in London to make them more energy efficient. Better management of heating and enhanced use of natural light are critical to a more energy efficient office, and the future workplace should put much greater onus on employees to manage this, says Mr Winston.

“Increasingly we are seeing that rather than pushing ever further towards automation, sustainable buildings need to give their inhabitants a higher level of interaction so they can regulate their own lighting and heating through apps,” he says.

The challenge in turning a shared space into an eco-friendly office

If the future workplace is one where buildings become more interactive and energy efficient, and reduction of waste is driven from the highest levels of senior management, it may well be the shared offices that lag behind. With a growing number of small businesses and startups renting offices in trendy shared spaces, it is incumbent upon the providers of those spaces to set sustainability within the terms of leases and ensure recycling facilities are consistently available.

Providers of shared office space have a mixed reputation on this front. Entrepreneur Kevin Sefton began his career at accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the 1990s and is now co-founder of Untied, a startup that seeks to simplify the submission of personal tax returns. Having used many shared offices in recent years, he has become depressed at the widespread apathy towards environmental issues.

“The amount of waste that is generated from shared offices is staggering; very often they have trashcans with no recycling. Twenty years ago at Arthur Andersen I would eat from a china plate with metal cutlery in the staff canteen and there were no single-use plastics. Now it’s the complete opposite; there is a huge missed responsibility in shared offices,” says Mr Sefton.

Creating an eco-friendly office - who’s responsible?

Some shared office providers take their responsibility to the environment more seriously than others, he adds, but if neither the shared office nor the individual tenant businesses take action, the carbon footprint will only increase. Olly Olsen, co-founder and co-chief executive of the Office Group, which operates 35 office spaces in the UK, says: “We do receive suggestions and queries from our members, and with so many companies under each roof it is harder to rollout common practices across such a diverse member base. There are a number of priorities we are currently focused on, from our waste management protocols, compliance, to transitioning from traditional energy sources to renewables across the portfolio.”