Most of us can agree traditional office spaces were not designed with human beings or the planet in mind. They were about maximizing space and minimizing budget. This often meant unsightly cubicle farms with desks nowhere near windows--those were reserved for the coveted executive offices--stuffy air with little circulation, and artificial lighting. If employees wanted better, they had to strive for scarce opportunities that put them in the C-Suite (when those jobs were often recruited for outside the company), bring their own small plants to liven up their cube, and mainly deal with it.

It's not a sustainable way to work, and this sardine-packing approach exploded into the open office craze, which in many cases, kept the sardines and threw out the box. Privacy and distractions got worse. People got sicker. Absenteeism skyrocketed. Job satisfaction plummeted.

The open office "solution" also ignored a major downfall of traditional office buildings: their environmental impact.

The Environment

According to the US Green Building Council, office buildings are responsible for 41% of the world's average energy use, by far the biggest consumer. Electricity consumption is the worst marker, with office buildings in the US accountable for a whopping 73% of the country's usage. Some more USGBC stats:

  • American building construction contributes a huge 38% of all CO2 emissions

  • 13.6% of all potable water, roughly 15 trillion gallons per year, runs through America's office buildings.

  • 61% of the 170 million tons of construction and demolition debris generated in America is produced by commercial buildings.

We as a nation, as a species, need sustainably built offices, and we need them now.

Thankfully, green buildings aren't just good for the environment, they're good for the budget. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certified Buildings:

  • Produce 34% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Use 25% less energy and 11% less water than a non-LEED building, reducing utility expenses.

  • Boast 19% lower maintenance costs.

  • Lower resource consumption by 80 million tons of waste in landfills.

  • Have a greater market value. Green retrofits of existing buildings can increase the building's value up to 4%. The costs of a retrofit are paid back within 7 years through utility and maintenance savings

The Employees

When the environmental impact is considered in conjunction with the needs of employees, the economic benefits are impossible to ignore. The USGBC released study results in October of 2018 related to employees that benefit from working in sustainably built, environmentally conscious, and employee-centric workplaces:

  • More than 80% of all employees directly equate productivity and clean indoor air quality with their job satisfaction.

  • 79% of all respondents say they would choose a LEED-certified building over a non-LEED-certified building in which to work.

  • 93% who work in LEED-certified buildings report overall job satisfaction, as opposed to 81% who work in a traditional office building.

But let's talk about the people. What do employees want in a sustainable office?

Good, Natural Light

Good news for the budget, natural light is cheaper than electric light. Better news for employees, natural light results in less eyestrain, fewer headaches, a reduction in sick time, and an overall feeling of alertness at the end of the workday. Benefits aren't just physical either. Employees with access to natural light and daylighting techniques (such as skylights, reflective surfaces, and light shelves) report an increase in productivity and comfort over poorly lit conditions. Since lighting represents the largest source of electricity consumption in US offices, the savings by the increase in natural light can be significant.

Improved Air Quality

Fresh air awakens the senses, improves temperature comfort, and has a positive influence on employees' alertness, thereby reducing reliance on energy boosters such as caffeine and sugar. Indoor pollutants can be greater than outdoor pollutants, so employees with allergies or respiratory issues such as asthma find themselves reaching for the antihistamines or inhalers less often when companies invest in air quality intended for employee wellbeing. The lower the indoor CO2 emissions, the greater the comfort of the employee. Plants can also help, filtering out CO2 as well as providing noise reduction and a pleasing environment in which to work. Even having a green roof can reduce heating and cooling costs.

Water Conservation and Recycling

40% of water in office buildings is consumed through sanitary use, while another 28% filters through heating and cooling systems, according to the EPA. Installing sensor faucets and low-flush toilets or waterless urinals can go a long way toward reducing the building's impact on water consumption. Better yet, replace as much water as possible by perfecting rainwater collection. Some of the smartest buildings in the world are entirely self-sustained in terms of water usage.

Building Materials

Toxic chemicals should have no place in the office. These are found in everything from soaps and cleaning supplies to paints, furniture's foams, plastics, and fabrics, equipment like copiers and printers, and air fresheners. The more non-toxic, recyclable, and organic materials that can be used, the better for employees. It contributes to reduced absenteeism and greater overall comfort in the working environment.

It Can Be Done

The belief that the company cares about employee wellbeing, as well as the environment, is an important one. It's also a profitable one. For instance, The Crystal in London has been awarded the highest BREEAM and LEED certificates for its energy efficiency. It is also the world's most sustainable events venue. Its unique shape allows for the harvesting of rainwater while maximizing natural light. But that's not all it does. It's entirely electric and uses solar power and ground source heat to generate its own energy, and its CO2 emissions are 70% lower than conventional office buildings in London. Its heating bill? £0. There is no question The Crystal is the design of the future.

Sustainability was something the minds behind the Bullitt Center in Seattle, Washington made a priority over everything else when constructing what's called "The Greenest Commercial Building in the World." Entirely self-sustaining, it produces as much energy as it uses, solves the water use and waste problem by harvesting and treating rainwater, and has a lifespan 6 times greater than the average building at 250 years.

Another sustainability project in Toronto, Canada, the RBC Waterpark Place, is 1.2 million square feet of employee-centric attention. With the swipe of an employee keycard, the elevator knows which floor to take them to, stores their profiles to adjust the height of their desks, their lighting and temperature preferences, and more. The integrated systems are so advanced, the building even tracks movement and consumption levels, so employees always know the impact they're having on the building, and thus the outside world.

People are increasingly behaving in environmentally conscious ways, including choosing to work for companies with green practices over those without them. Sustainable buildings attract better talent and retain them longer than conventional buildings. Employees perceive that company as caring more overall, and as behaving in line with social and environmental values that are increasingly important to the working population. 84% of employees would prioritize working for a company with positive values over ones that don't exhibit concerns over their environmental impact.

Companies that prioritize sustainability are saying one thing very clearly: they're interested in the future. The future of their employees, the future of their bottom line, and the future of the planet. It's a win-win-win.

Published on: May 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.