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The challenges of building a sustainable workplace

The green agenda filters down through every aspect of working, from how offices are designed and built to employee behaviour

Creating a sustainable workplace means accounting for many different aspects from energy usage to employee supports. Photograph: iStock

Creating a sustainable workplace means accounting for many different aspects from energy usage to employee supports. Photograph: iStock

 

What does a sustainable office look like in 2021? Many workplaces have gone far beyond compostable coffee cups and a clearly labelled recycling bin. Indeed, this is no longer considered enough as the green agenda filters down through every aspect of working, from how offices are designed and built to employee behaviour.

The office environment has changed dramatically, with architects designing sustainable workplaces at the earliest stages, with the vision being an attractive yet functional space that minimises energy usage and waste, explains Aideen O’Hora, director of sustainability works.

“We have newer buildings being built to very high energy performance standards but at the same time they are being built with people in mind and how they will be used. Daylight will be optimised, for example, as we all work better in natural light as opposed to artificial light. Even the materials used in construction are sustainable, such as a lower carbon concrete, or the building may even be designed so that fewer materials are used in total,” explains O’Hora, adding that the newer office buildings in Dublin’s Docklands are being built to a similar high spec.

For companies seeking to make buildings more sustainable, O’Hora says they are engaging in sometimes significant programmes of retrofitting. “They are putting in more efficient lighting and heating systems so that their buildings perform better.” She notes, however, that there can be downsides to some positive employee behaviours. “We have seen now with more people walking and cycling to work that there is more demand on water use in office buildings that provide shower facilities. Some of them are now looking into water harvesting and adding that to their building design.”

According to Séamus Hand, managing partner with KPMG, the pandemic has shown how businesses are agile and can be transformed to operate and succeed in a way that is more sustainable and better for our planet. KPMG is “hugely focused” on ways it can reduce its impact on the environment.

“Since 2010 we have reduced our scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 50 per cent and in 2021 we have committed to being a net zero organisation by 2030. We are doing this in a number of ways including reducing reliance on fossil fuels, embedding best available technologies to increase building efficiencies, and increased use of renewable energy.”

The firm has invested “heavily” in modern, sustainable offices in Belfast, Cork and Galway in the last few years and a new office in Dublin set to open in the next five years will meet the same criteria.

“We’ve also committed to reducing any residual emissions through verified carbon offset and removal initiatives verified by decarbonisation experts from our Sustainable Futures division. To address indirect emissions that occur in our value chain, we’re also working with suppliers to ensure their sustainability ambitions align with our commitment to achieve carbon reductions,” adds Hand.

‘Good decisions’

Stephen Brennan, supply chain and procurement director with Aramark Northern Europe is also executive sponsor of the Aramark Northern Europe Sustainability plan “Be Well. Do Well”. He tells The Irish Times that sustainability can be a “very challenging topic” for business because the bar is always being raised as new information becomes available. “There’s no silver bullet to a ‘sustainable office’.”

“It’s a challenge that our business has relished, and put a new focus on, but it can often be difficult for our operations and our clients to separate the signal from the noise on environmental and social governance [ESG],” he admits.

Yet their vision is clear; Brennan believes the modern sustainable office “caters to an excellent user experience, with minimal environmental impact, and encompasses everything from energy usage, to cleaning products, to food service offering, to heating, cooling and waste”.

“Sustainability in approach is about making more good decisions than bad ones, and continually driving improvement across the board,” he adds.

The company has concrete long-term plans to make their offices even more sustainable; the Aramark headquarters in Northern Cross, Dublin, will “set an example for our clients across the region”, Brennan says,

“Our energy services team are currently planning a double-digit commitment to reduce energy, water consumption, and waste across the two floors that we operate, and are also working to scope and install several EV charging ports to support our ever-growing electric fleet.” The company also wishes to focus on the more complex elements of environmental impacts, such as scope 2 and scope 3 (direct and indirect) emissions and a commitment of zero waste to landfill by 2025 in all its managed sites, not just their own offices.

The recycling bins are still in situ but it’s not just about employers doing more – there is also a broader move to empower employees to do more in the way of sustainability, O’Hora says. “For a long time in the corporate world when it came to sustainability, the programmes were very one-dimensional but now they look at employee needs too and how they can encourage and empower them to be more sustainable.”