The Hidden Environmental Costs of Downsizing an Office: What We Learned

There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated a mass shift to remote working like we’ve never seen before – and studies are beginning to support the idea that hybrid remote working models will stay here.

According to research by McKinsey & Company, more than 20% of the workforce could work three to five days a week as effectively as if they were working from an office. This means that three to four times as many people were able to continue working from home as before the pandemic.

While working from home has drawbacks and it’s easy to long for the days of joking around with water coolers, we’ve also settled in and started enjoying the benefits of work-life integration.

Maybe we have direct access to the refrigerator or we feel comfortable in loungewear over our old office clothes. Maybe we just enjoy spending more time with loved ones. However, the most significant benefit of the abrupt global shift to remote working has been the positive impact it has on the environment.

For example, the reduction in commuting may have contributed to the fall in air pollution reported by NASA in April 2020 in the northeastern United States

Given the significantly reduced CO2 emissions and the fact that offices either close their doors or merge into smaller spaces, this seems like good news for Mother Nature.

But that’s not the whole story.

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Why leaving the office can be bad for the environment

Hootsuite is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. We are therefore watching closely what this shift looks like in Canada. In Q3 2020, Canada’s downtown office markets had 4 million square feet of vacant office space.

This is not surprising given the flight from urban hubs as a result of widespread worldwide lockdowns from the pandemic and the many companies that have since announced they are completely remote or hybrid and plan to reduce their office space.

Less commuters. Less offices. It’s win-win, right?

However, keep in mind that these offices are full of desks, chairs, tech, decorations, and more.

With all that downsizing, you might be wondering: where exactly is it all going? According to Canadian Interiors, over 10 million tons of polluting furniture waste known as “F-Waste” ends up in landfills in Canada and the US every year. If you’ve ever tried getting rid of a bed or couch, you probably know what we’re talking about.

In the workplace, a functioning office cubicle represents between 300 and 700 pounds of waste. A typical desk chair alone contains dozens of different materials and chemicals that are dangerous to the environment if the item is improperly disposed of.

With the ongoing reduction and closure of offices, now is the time to start thinking seriously about what to do with all of that F-waste – and an approach that takes into account the environment and communities in which employees live and work a good starting point.

How you can help your employer reduce their carbon footprint

In 2020, Hootsuite traded our busy collection of global offices for the virtual world (like many of you). And in 2021, after doing a series of surveys to find out how our employees wanted to work in the future, we decided to switch to a “distributed workforce” strategy.

Based on feedback from our staff, we’ve decided to convert some of our larger offices (which we’ve always referred to as “nests”) in selected regions into “perches” – our version of a “hot desk” model. “We took this new approach to support the mental health of our employees by giving them autonomy over where and how they want to work.

At the start of the Perch Pilot, we redesigned our office space in Vancouver, taking inclusiveness and flexibility into account. Now that we focused on collaborative furniture through a traditional office setup, we were left with many desks, chairs, and monitors that needed a home – and begs the question, what would we do with all that F-waste?

To make sure we did everything right, we partnered with Green Standards, an organization that uses donations, resale and recycling to keep furniture and appliances in the workplace out of the landfill while making a positive impact on the local community. Essentially, they would take all of our things and turn them into social and environmental good.

Infographic showing the impact of downsizing Hootsuite's office on the community

You helped us Convert 19 tons of corporate waste into a total of $ 19,515 in charity donations BC’s Native Courtworker and Counseling Association, Habitat for Humanity in Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services in Vancouver, and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

Hootsuite’s partnership with Green Standards resulted in 19 tons of materials being diverted from landfills and 65 tons of carbon emissions reduced. These efforts translate into reducing gasoline consumption by 7,253 gallons, growing 1,658 tree saplings for 10 years, and balancing the electricity consumption of nine households for one year.

What we learned when we downsized our office

Working with Green Standards has allowed us to identify a significant problem and reduce waste before it goes to landfill. On the way we learned a few things from our partner that we are happy to pass on to you so that we can all make our contribution to environmental protection.

  1. Make an inventory of office furniture. A thorough inventory is a must. Clear information about what we had in our offices saved us headaches and enabled us to effectively measure our future donation and impact.
  2. Understand project goals (and opportunities). Once you understand what you are working with, you need to figure out what you and your team want from the project. Whether it is painless removal or social impact, identifying goals at the beginning is a must in order to create a plan that will help you achieve those goals.
  3. Prepare for the risks of a large excess. The budget isn’t the only thing at stake when figuring out what to do with a ton of extra office furniture and equipment. Time and effort, supplier relationships and on-site security, all of which have an impact on the overall result of the project, require the same amount of attention in one big step.
  4. Commission a reliable logistics service provider. The wrong provider can disrupt planning, damage items, ruin a furniture sale, mix up locations or cause friction with other stakeholders. You are the backbone of the project and need to be as reliable and capable as possible.
  5. Document and report everything. Project documentation is the most valuable planning tool as it shows where everything went at the end of the project and helps demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) for key corporate social responsibility goals. The ability to track each item through to its final destination ensures that items have actually been recycled or donated – and not disposed of if no one was looking.

Throughout the process we found that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or one-size-fits-all solution to office sustainability. On our journey to find out what works best for our employees and our community, and through many conversations with the Green Standards team, we understood how we can add value to organizations in need in our community through assets that were available to us can offer .

Infographic showing the program impact of downsizing the Hootsuite office

We’ve found that often the things you need to have an impact are right in front of you.

Whether it’s a single storage room or an enterprise-wide consolidation, the trick is to create value by aligning the project with larger business initiatives – from accountability and transparency to community investment and sustainability goals.

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