Green Days

Environment-friendly workplaces an emerging trend

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2006

The soft light of the sun-filled day greets you as you enter through the door made of partially recycled materials. Upon entering the room, you notice the air seems cleaner, employees look healthier, and - are those organic apples on that table?

No, this isn't the beginning of a science fiction novel. It's actually not fiction at all. In fact, a scene like this could play out at an office near you if your employer is as environmentally minded as others. For some companies, going green is more than a passing trend or a meaningless catchphrase, it's a way of life that affects all aspects of business.

"We felt we needed to make [the new headquarters] as employee-friendly as possible - we have a pretty advanced health and fitness facility we offer to our employees for free - it's one of a kind in New England, and we make a big effort on weight consciousness and healthy eating," explains Jim Smith, senior director of real estate and facilities for Mortgage Lenders Network USA in Middleton, Conn. "The overriding concern is to make it a weapon to retain and recruit employees."

From the ground up

The "weapon" Smith speaks of is an eco-friendly headquarters that is currently being built in Wallingford, Conn. But offering healthy perks is only a small part of what the company is doing to provide an environmentally sound building. Using recycled materials, adding innumerable windows and utilizing solar power and fuel cell energy are just a few of the work-altering improvements that are being made to the new office building.

"We thought if we could build this at about the same cost, it would be worth it to make the building as environmentally friendly as possible," Smith adds. "I think it plays well with the younger X generation that's coming into the workplace. That's not to say that the older workers aren't as concerned about [the environment], but the kids seem to be more aware of it."

Smith says creating this structure is similar to making an investment. While it may take a bit more time and planning, the future advantages of the new headquarters will outweigh any inconveniences in the present.

Catching on

With that said, the plan to go green isn't limited to a select few companies. In fact, a study by the International Facility Management Association found that 11 percent of those surveyed said they are "following a master plan to implement all feasible green concepts at their facility," while 59 percent are initiating "selected green building concepts, but without a master plan."

While such undertakings can have a positive effect on the environment, the benefits don't stop there. Modified ventilation systems, like those in the MLN headquarters that is currently in progress, are not the overhead vents that most offices have. Rather, the system is under the floor, allowing the air to come from below, which reduces airborne toxins and provides cleaner air to breathe.

Additionally, the use of natural daylight as an alternative to the harsh fluorescent lighting found in most office buildings also aids in the health of employees, which ultimately can cut down on time off because of illness.

"People like to talk about where they work, and having an environmentally friendly workplace is something they can be proud of when talking with peers," explains Mark Albion, former professor at Harvard Business School and author of "True to Yourself: Leading a Values-Based Business" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $12). "[It] makes people feel less removed from nature and the natural order of things. People feel better about their employer as one who cares about more than just the bottom line."

Complete approach

In today's market, Albion's last point is a striking one. Sure, you can eat organic food, buy an electric car, or simply take public transportation, but rarely do today's workers have the opportunity for that kind of consciousness to extend to the workplace.

"This is just the beginning," he adds. "I have worked with large Japanese companies who identify environmental friendliness as being one of the two top strategic priorities for the next decade. Note Al Gore's movie ["An Inconvenient Truth"] and Stephen Hawking's recent comments: 'We better invest in our space program because the way we are treating our planet, we will need another [planet] soon.'"

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