It’s often taken as a given that in order to sustain the standard of living many of us have become accustomed to, we have to maintain or increase our access to fuel sources as well as to goods and services. As a result, it can be hard to see how to balance environmental sustainability with economic growth.
But what if we could continue to have a high or even higher quality of life, not by restricting our resource use via dire edicts, but just by rethinking our approach to the way we work? That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a job working as an environmentalist. It does mean that there may be ways in every industry to use resources differently.
Who is commuting to work, and why does it matter?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American spends about 50 minutes a day commuting, and 86% of us drive in a car, truck, or van. 76% of us drive alone. Only 4% of us report working from home.
Work commutes make up just under 20% of all trips taken in the U.S. In addition, 42% of us are traveling between the hours of 7am-9am. If more workers were working from home (telecommuting) on a regular basis, our fuel needs might shift dramatically without a single change in our activities outside of work. And by promoting staggered schedules in addition to telecommuting, we could reduce road congestion, travel times, and emissions.
How else might workplace flexibility impact environmental sustainability?
The typical floor plan for conventional office design consists of a large open space broken up by interior offices and interior office cubicles, built with construction cost-savings in mind. Exterior walls will often have windows that do not open and are not visible from the interior desks. As a result, fresh air and natural light are a rarity, and artificial lights and cooling/heating/recirculating air vents are used to compensate. Printers, copiers, and and computers are often left on in areas where staff are on vacation, traveling, or in meetings, and sometimes remain on 24 hours a day. This design does not maximize employee productivity, and it’s also environmentally destructive.
The U.S. Green Building Council is working to change the way buildings are designed and operated around the country, in order to maximize productivity and minimize environmental impact.
But in addition, rethinking the way we work could have a marked effect on resource use. Workers on staggered schedules as part-time telecommuters could share space, reducing real estate needs, and full-time telecommuters don’t need a traditional office space at all. Beyond commuting, travel needs (including via airline) could be greatly reduced in favor of teleconferences.
That said, heating or cooling a 3-bedroom house for a single worker to stay home and work is not necessarily an environmental advantage over driving to an office. But working in a dedicated home-office space in an energy-efficient home with access to natural light and fresh air almost certainly is. And office-sharing within walking distance from home among workers with different employers could become a new standard.
Isn’t it worth considering new ways to work that could increase employee productivity and benefit the environment as well? Get Involved.