Innovation That Matters

Sustainable workplace

Top Innovations for a sustainable workplace

Work & Lifestyle

The first in our 'Future of Work' series looks at the most innovative examples of sustainability in the workplace, from furniture tapping into the circular economy to smart bins taking advantage of the Internet of Things.

Not long ago, sustainability was seen by some businesses as a means of achieving better reputation. Now, in a multitude of ways, basic tenets of employment, career and business are being transformed by the surge and strength of belief in environmental responsibility and stewardship. Waste without consequence is long gone, and traditional jobs are being replaced by new flexible roles working in partnership with technology. Sustainability is now becoming an essential aspect of the office of the future.

At Springwise we deeply care about sustainability and we have been following the trend of workplaces now being considered part of a holistic approach to employees’ and communities’ overall wellbeing. Innovations in these spaces range from the advent of the digital nomad to hacks of almost everything, including transport, furniture design, recycling and washrooms. New buildings have both more responsibility and more opportunity. Low carbon footprints are expected and a company’s approach to this an integral aspect of today’s purposeful branding.

For some companies, a sustainable workplace begins the moment their employees step outside their homes. Spain’s Mahou San Miguel brewery won a Sustainable Mobility award for its in-house Car Share app that links all company vehicles. Employees can register as either a driver or rider and send alerts to colleagues before each trip. Bycycling is an app that uses company-set incentives to get employees on two wheels.

Buildings themselves are some of the world’s biggest consumers, and most of Earth’s natural assets are incredibly limited. Standing in the way of the potential for resource wars is the fantastically swift development of smart, connected devices that communicate with each other. The Internet of Things (IoT) makes possible one of the most effective improvements in resource management. Water, electricity, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems now can be monitored in real time; set to stand by when not needed; reduce waste by identifying hardware faults as soon as they occur; and tailor use to changing requirements of businesses, teams or individuals. Such efficiency greatly improves sustainability.

It’s not just the high-visibility areas of a company that are undergoing transformations. Intelligent sensors in the CWS Washroom Information Service measure the levels of materials in each dispenser and, using wireless Bluetooth technology, transmit the data to a central Washroom Control Unit. Individual cleaners use the connected app to make real-time adjustments, and management teams can more swiftly allocate resources.

With so much of today’s work done behind a computer screen, workplace furniture is an easy way to make a statement about a business’ values. And finding ways for the company to get involved in local circular economies is another way to increase sustainability and community. One company has pioneered just such a combination. London-based Opendesk’s furniture design platform explicitly connects customers with area businesses. Furniture design specifications files are sold online, and customers download them in order to have the piece constructed locally. This approach provides an international sales platform for small-scale creatives, reduces carbon emissions and supports local businesses around the world.

Despite the growing trend for buying thoughtfully and locally, waste, particularly plastic, is still ubiquitous and choking environs around the world. One of the largest challenges facing communities globally is what to do with all the trash. Fortunately, many projects and organisations are dedicated to taking as much as possible out of circulation by reusing it in a new guise.

German furniture company Pentatonic creates new, single ingredient materials from items that would otherwise be bound for the dump. Because nothing is added to each new material, recycling is easy, and the company’s buy-back policy demonstrates sustained circularity. The furniture is modular, with interchangeable parts, making it a smart buy for companies on tighter budgets or based in smaller spaces.

Recycling is one of the easiest ways to reduce pollution, yet far too many products are still finding their way into landfill. And compostable, biodegradable packaging has yet to become the norm. As depressing as this could be, there is hope to be found in the many solutions that startups, as well as international corporations, are developing. Epson has built a dry, in-office paper recycling system, and resource management company Veolia provides a coffee cup recycling solution for UK businesses.

Helping to take the guesswork out of recycling is IoT connected smart trashcan Bin-e. Users drop their waste into the top compartment, and the bin categorises and compresses the item. Data is saved to the cloud, making it easy to schedule collection as soon as storage units are full.

As well as recycling, reuse needs to be an essential aspect of any company’s green strategy. Globechain is a reuse platform that makes this easy by connecting the disposal needs of big businesses with charities seeking particular items. And when brand new is necessary, businesses and cities have unprecedented opportunity to build sustainably and smartly. Materials science is continually exploring, and architecture and construction projects test practicality on an industrial scale. A Gensler-designed skyscraper in Ohio uses a solar-powered passive ventilation system to push stale air out and pull in fresh. In California, a tower designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects incorporates an onsite sewage recycling system that could save nearly 30,000 gallons of water per day.

As projects take on (and eventually conquer) the bigger, more complex stumbling blocks to a carbon-neutral future, is a no-waste office of the future imaginable? And if so, what role will retrofitting have as technologies continue to develop a pace?