After pausing during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Green Office Program has officially relaunched! During this truly unprecedented time, the pandemic has changed WashU’s office life completely.
About 25% of green office participants responded to a survey designed to understand how offices shifted during the university’s pandemic operations, lessons they’ve learned, and what they hope to apply to their work as they return to in-person offices. The survey indicated that some of the changes have jumpstarted a variety of sustainable office practices.
In this article, we will share the main themes that we observed as we reviewed survey responses, followed by a list of tips for transitioning to a “greener” office during this unique opportunity to rethink and restart!
Offices are invited to certify or re-certify their offices for 2021 as part of their return to campus process. Following the tips below and the checklist will help prioritize practices and policies that enable teams to re-establish (or newly adopt) more sustainable behaviors and ensure that the office infrastructure aligns with best practices for green offices.
Lessons Learned from Working Remotely
Considering that coming to campus was not an option for the majority of the WashU community, working remotely became the new norm for many. Public health policies resulted in less business travel, lowering the harmful emissions that resulted from driving to and from campus during regular commutes, for meetings and long distance travel. The offices on campus remained largely vacant, cutting down the energy usage required to use printers, lights, heating and cooling systems, and computers.
Before COVID-19 sent everyone home, a large portion of a typical office’s waste came from food, whether it was from individual packaging or large catered events. This waste was drastically cut while remote work and virtual events were common. These virtual events also allowed for wider audience participation, with the ability to include people across the nation that might not have been able to attend in person under normal circumstances. Another effect that remote work had on sustainable office practices was a decrease in overall office purchasing, primarily paper, snacks, and single use items (such as tissues). There was an increase in digital documents and filing sytems which lead to a massive decrease in paper purchasing, use, and waste.
While some of these impacts will return to the status quo (like tissue purchases and heating and cooling), we encourage offices to think about new applications to use virtual meetings and speaker engagements to significantly reduce daily travel and long-distance travel. Travel makes up a significant portion of the university’s indirect (Scope 3) emissions.
In addition, rethinking the office “stock”, whether it is office supplies, snacks, coffee or paper, is a good way to reduce expenses and waste. Savings could justify any slight increases in sourcing greener products, like copy paper with more recycled content or fair trade coffee.
Returning Stronger for the New “Normal”
There were a couple of new initiatives found in the survey that stand out as being especially sustainability conscious.
For example, the Parent Engagement & Advancement office used COVID as an opportunity to install LED lights in their office, further lowering their energy usage. Oncology MCC on the 10th floor decreases their waste by collecting unused phlebotomy supplies and donating them to other departments or schools. They also hosted a kitchen utensils drive to collect reusable utensils for shared use at the office. These two offices, among many others on campus, have used COVID as a time of innovation, furthering their efforts to exemplify what it means to be a truly green office.
With many offices returning to campus in the summer and fall, we expect to see many of the more positive changes originally brought on by COVID-19 stick. Many of the surveyed offices plan to continue using digital documents and filing systems, which will result in less printing and paper waste. While many events and meetings will be held in-person, virtual gatherings will continue to bring people across and off-campus together, leading to a reduction in emissions, transportation costs, and food waste. After seeing the benefits of working remotely, some offices are hoping to retain a hybrid model of remote and in-office work in the future. This would result in a further reduction in emissions and energy usage on campus.
As the world returns to “normal”, the long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to alter the way we live and work. The transition back to the office as COVID-19 policies recede, creates an unprecedented opportunity to build your green office infrastructure, policies and culture from the ground up!
The tips below are compiled from green office liaisons and the team at the Office of Sustainability. As for those who will continue to work remotely, review our tips on developing a green home office.
Tips for Relaunching Your Green Office
The transition period following alternative campus operations after a year and a half of hybrid and fully remote work is a perfect time to rethink the office environment and culture. As your team re-enters your shared space, be intentional about how things are set up. We rarely get a chance to start over from scratch and reset our environment, but this rare opportunity should not be missed!
Here are some suggestions for where to start. Whether it is on the individual scale or at the scale of how your office operates, your decisions today will set the foundation for your future impact.
- If you need to purchase new office electronics, look into buying energy star products and/or purchasing second-hand.
- Given folks are more used to electronic filing than ever, consider doing an audit of personal printers and seeing if there are any that can be taken offline. This saves electricity, ink and paper.
- Need to purge before people return? Clear out someone’s desk or office? Donate to a non-profit, the Office Supply Exchange, or offer up on WashU ReUse.
- Are there opportunities to reduce overall material items based on what you learned you didn’t need during the pandemic?
- Maintain the best practices you mastered for filing documents on the cloud and doing without paper copies.
- Take a moment to cancel subscriptions to magazines and catalogues you don’t need.
- Can you reduce your paper stock if you are printing less?
- If you do need to purchase more paper, source with high recycled content and FSC certified.
- Do you need to fully restock office supplies or have you been doing without items while working from home? Hold on the blanket purchase until you know you need something.
- If you are doing full restocks, employ best practices like:
- Check the Office Supply Exchange for free office supplies re-circulated from elsewhere in the university.
- Check WashU ReUse (Rheaply) for furniture, equipment and supplies before buying new.
- Do you need to purchase a headset to attend virtual meetings from an open office space? Seek out options that are high quality, long lasting, and that have other lower impact attributes, like reduced packaging or less plastic.
- This transition point is the perfect time to reconsider your commute. WashU Rides is a free, one stop resource for exploring sustainable transportation options at WashU, including carpooling, bike routes, transit stops and more!
- When hosting meetings with people from other WashU campuses or external stakeholders, consider a virtual meeting to save on commute time, parking and driving.
- Rather than multiple visits from non-local consultants, consolidate in-person trips and meet virtually when possible.
- Provide flexibility to staff to be able to work remotely on occasion when it makes sense.
- During the hiring process, try to conduct interviews virtually.
- Invite non-local speakers to join virtually.
- Support local restaurants & caterers. Check the Green Dining Alliance website for sustainable locals.
- Source promotional products and apparel from WashU’s list of licensed suppliers, who have been vetted by Public Affairs through an RFP process that included sustainability as a parameter (some are more versed in environmentally-friendly items than others).
- Carefully select promotional items (SWAG), prioritizing items that are useful, reusable items, durable, and made from natural or recycled materials.
- Start out with a Green Office team meeting to go over resources, policies, or goals for the office. Engage your team members!
- Fill out the Green Office checklist to get a sense of where you are and help focus your re-entry activities.
- What did you learn from the pandemic retreat that could be applied to future work in your office?
- Before the pandemic, did you have innovative green office practices in place? Be sure to re-implement as needed. Or, revisit your goals and opportunities from past checklists and put them into practice!
- What green office goals do you have for the next year? How will you tackle them?