Top Tips for Sustainability in the Office (Including Your Home Office!)

This post was originally published on 11 April 2018 and updated on 16 April 2020. 

Good environmental practice is a big part of our ethos at Obelisk Support. We actively promote sustainability in the office and are always looking for ways to reduce our waste and energy consumption. As many of our staff and consultants work remotely and flexibly, these sustainability guidelines apply to home offices too. Small actions go a long way, and we can all do a little more to ensure we only consume the energy and resources we need. As April is Earth Month, here are some of our top tips for simple sustainable practices at work, wherever that may be.

#1 Benchmark energy use

All too often the benchmarking stage is overlooked by organisations when looking to make improvements to sustainability but it is an important part of the process – and individuals can also benefit from first taking stock of their starting position before diving in to making changes.

Essentially benchmarking means fully understanding how your building, office or home operates and where the most effective savings can be made. By completing a benchmarking exercise at the outset you can assess performance trends, set targets, ensure you are working to comply with any legislative or regulatory requirements and help identify which actions are most effective and where the greatest savings can be made.

Look at (and record) your current energy usage (including electricity, heating, water etc) and current suppliers/ cost as well as considering any materials you use. Commercial benchmarking usually includes analysis of raw-material consumption but for these purposes that is probably a step too far. If you are working from home, try this energy use calculator as a starting point.

#2 Switch to green/clean suppliers

Switching to green energy providers does not automatically mean a rise in bills and it is worth checking every year or two that you are on the most appropriate and efficient tariffs. 

Most energy providers include green energy tariffs, supplying energy that is up to 100% renewable from a variety of sources including wind farms and solar panels. Providers can have their tariffs checked and audited by Ofgem, the UK gas and electricity regulator, officially certifying the service as green by their Green Energy Certification Scheme accreditation.

Whether you decide to switch or not, make sure that you’ve signed up to paperless billing for all suppliers.

#3 Re-consider paper use, stationery and printing

Think about your paper use. Eliminate paper where possible, which has the dual effect of reducing consumption as well as freeing up physical space that you would have used for storing files. If you need to make notes, try using the note function on your phone, tablet or computer. 

If you need to circulate information such as presentations, try slideshare.com. Include a line at the bottom of emails encouraging people not to print out messages unnecessarily. When you absolutely need to print, double check that you’re not wasting paper by printing out additional pages with just a URL or footer.

Set your printer to print double-sided and in black and white by default to save on both paper and ink. Many printers also allow you to print in draft mode, printing text more lightly with less ink but still enough to be able to read. Reducing print margins will help you print using less paper. You can also purchase recycled toner and ink along with your recycled paper! And when you’re done with your ink cartridges, recycle them at your local recycling centre.

It goes without saying that any paper you do use should be recycled once you’ve finished with it – and that you have enough recycling bins in your workspace to stop people using the conventional bin (particularly in the home office). Paper can be recycled up to 5 times, and the manufacturing of recycled paper uses less energy, water, and produces lower carbon emissions than non-recycled paper. You should also only buy recycled paper. The quality now matches the print performance of non-recycled paper. 

You can also ‘recycle’ paper yourself in the office – e.g. using shredded paper for package padding, relabelling and reusing boxes/envelopes, and using the backs of non-confidential paper for making notes, etc. If you need to order new envelopes and packing materials, avoid plastic envelopes and tapes in favour of paper options – you can even get paper tapes pre-printed with your logo.

Take it a step further and switch to recycled toilet paper in the office bathrooms, or consider a subscription to toilet paper suppliers such as Who Gives a Crap, who don’t use any plastic in their wrapping or boxes, use bamboo for the ‘paper’ which is more sustainable as well as give away part of their profits to building toilets.

#4 Heat and light

Unnecessary electronic lighting is a big problem in many offices, so try to pay a little more attention to ensure lights are not left on when they are not needed on bright days. You may need to reconsider the office layout if lights are having to be used during daylight hours due blinds being closed to combat screen glare. Use LED torch/desk lights for close document reading, rather than turning on multiple room-filling ceiling lights.

Make sure that your windows are as energy efficient as possible – consider double or even triple glazing if appropriate as well as window treatments which prevent heat escaping in the winter. Look into whether you can even use your windows to generate heat by absorbing sunlight and recirculating.

Think about the temperature of your workspace/office and whether there are energy efficient ways to retain an ambient temperature without energy zapping inefficient ancient heating or air-con systems.

Particularly if you work from home, investigate heating your individual workspace rather than relying on your central heating to warm the whole house. You can now get energy efficient individual heaters which are not the electricity drain like old fan heaters were.

# 5 Energy usage

In the office, it is easier to get into the habit of shutting down computers and laptops before we go home for the day. When working at home, it is more tempting to leave them running as we don’t actually leave them behind – besides, we might take a look at something later, right? Switching off when the work is done will also help you manage your time and separate work and home activity, so it’s worth doing for all round well-being.

We don’t need all of our electrical devices to perform at top capacity all of the time, so eco modes, where they exist, should be set wherever possible. Most of us are probably guilty of not even checking what kind of power saving settings exist on our smartphones as we are so used to being constantly connected, so it’s worth spending a couple of minutes adjusting screen brightness and sleep/overnight modes to conserve a little more energy.

Smart outlets are a good idea for those who often forget to switch off appliances (guilty as charged). Smart outlets allow you to control your plugs remotely, allowing you to switch them off, put on standby and monitor usage throughout your home or office. Best of all, they are relatively affordable per unit and are easy to incorporate into your existing outlets – just plug them in and away you go.

Consider using motion-sensors in lesser used spaces, such as meeting rooms and toilets/bathrooms. We’ve also found that installing them in your home work space encourages you to stand up regularly to put the lights back on!

#6 Use your space effectively

Think about the space that you need to work in and whether you can use it more efficiently. If you manage to reduce paper, do you need as many storage shelves? Is there a better layout which allows people to work at a decent distance from each other (for concentration as well as current virus concerns) but uses less square footage? 

On a larger scale – can you combine work spaces with other people or businesses? Can you and your partner easily work in the same room to reduce heating and lighting costs? Can you combine renting office space with businesses that work alternating hours, so you can share kitchens and bathrooms, for example.

#7 Clean air / reduce indoor pollution

Speaking of viruses, one of the things that people will be surely giving more thought to when we return to any kind of office based work is air circulation. Even prior to this current pandemic, in 2016 Dr. Joseph Allen carried out a Harvard study that found the air we breathe in the office has a profound impact on our ability to work well. The research shows that higher levels of CO2 and VOCs in the air led to lower cognitive scores.

If you work from home, you can more easily ensure that your work space has adequate ventilation and fresh air. In the late 1980s Dr. B. C. Wolverton led a study at NASA about the use of indoor plants to purify air and it is still considered to be the most comprehensive research (it was aimed at space stations, but the research is applicable on earth too). The study concluded a number of plants were excellent at purifying the air to remove chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia from our surroundings. 

As for which plants to get, the Florist’s Chrysanthemum and Peace Lily (though not recommended for cat owners) scored highly as well as a variety of indoor palms and the study recommended at least one plant per 100 square feet.

#8 Food and drink

Meals and break times in the office can create a high volume of waste. If you are a caffeine fiend, take a reusable coffee cup to work or better yet, make it at home in a flask so you won’t have to boil the kettle again for your second cup! Ordering food in can present a problem, so it is worth talking to the food supplier to see if they can reduce the amount of packaging that comes with your order. Keep plenty of forks, spoons and cups in the kitchen to avoid people having to use plastic disposable utensils. Provide free (and excellent) tap water instead of buying bottled water. It’s a scam anyway.

#9 Use Sustainability Apps

As well as smart outlets, there are plenty of mobile apps you can use to track your day to day sustainability in the office and for reminders and tips to reduce your consumption, such as Oroeco. Or you can even go a step further and tie your action to broader global goals: The SDGs in Action app has been developed to highlight the UN Sustainable Development Goals – the world’s to-do list to end poverty, reduce inequalities and tackle climate change. The app also enables you to find actions and events near you that you can join to support the goals, create actions you’re planning in your area, and invite others to join.

#10 Take Part in Government and Community Green Schemes

In the office, as a freelance or remote worker, and as an individual, you can take part in green schemes such as the government’s Cycle to Work Scheme and plastic bottle deposit scheme. The Green Deal can also help you make energy saving improvements to your home or business premises. It is also worth finding out about environmental schemes being run by your local community and how you and your company can get involved.