In the future, workplaces will lead us to make more sustainable choices

The way we think about sustainable workplaces is about to be turned upside down. Every eco-movement so far has been about us influencing our environment (this time, for the better). We want to halt rising sea levels. Rid the air of pollutants. Protect native landscapes.

But what if our environment influenced us for the better?

Get ready, because that’s exactly what we’re in for. Architects and designers are starting to turn built environments like office spaces into platforms for altering human behavior. As Orwellian as that sounds, it’s actually more Emersonian: the idea is to create interactions between buildings and their occupants that result in more environmentally sustainable practices.

On the heels of Atlassian moving into a new space in eco-conscious San Francisco and as speculation about Amazon’s future facilities in New York and Virginia heats up, I spoke with builders and office managers to find out what we can expect from our benevolently-built overlords when they arrive – only to find out… they’re already here.


“The best way to make a building sustainable,” says Shonn Mills, Global Head of High-rises at development firm (and Atlassian customer) Ramboll, “is to bring it into dialogue with its inhabitants so it can start influencing their behavior.” And he would know. The nano-technology sensors we use today to automatically dim the light when a room is empty can also be used to encourage sustainable practices and behaviors inside the building through a bit of healthy competition.

Building management systems now have thousands of sensors that can tell you kilowatt usage per floor, how much garbage is sent to landfills, or how much water has flowed through the bathroom sinks today. When you communicate that data to people, they’ll form opinions about it and make different choices – just like seeing your daily step count on a FitBit encourages you to walk over to a colleague’s desk instead of sending an instant message. Sustainable workplaces make recycling and composting easy

Follow this to its logical conclusion and you’ve got a recipe for gamification. Who chose the stairs most often this month? Which floor’s occupants are crushing it on the recycling front? Don’t be surprised when these badges of honor start appearing in your Instagram feed. 

So long, space heaters

One of the great mysteries of our time is why most HVAC systems are programmed such that people wear sweaters and keep a blanket at their desk… in the middle of summer. Thankfully, a new breed of indoor climate control is putting an end to all that by dividing buildings into granular zones that can be controlled independently.

This means building managers will no longer have to crank up the air conditioning for an entire floor just so the server room doesn’t overheat. There are even apps that allow individuals to adjust the temperature at their desks and other micro-zones such as conference rooms, eliminating the need for contraband space heaters purring discretely next to one’s feet.

Hello, bike storage and showers

You know how once a year, on Bike To Work Day, everyone spends the rest of the day sporting active wear and a crusty patina of dried sweat? That’s because very few offices include showers.

Sustainable workplaces make it easy to walk, run, or bike to work
Need to wash away your bike ride or jog into the office? No sweat. (Literally.)

Really, the typical office facility is the real reason we* even have Bike To Work day. Most people living within 10 miles of their workplace could commute by bike (and get their daily workout in to boot), but choose not to. Adding shower facilities removes one of the most common excuses for driving instead of biking or walking. And placing bike storage areas prominently next to the entrance serves as a not-so-subtle reminder to make tomorrow the day you finally give bike commuting a try.

Bike storage is part of making workplaces more sustainable
Photo courtesy of Etsy.

*”We” being the United States and Canada. Props to the rest of the world for figuring out how to make bike transit not a big deal. Please send help. 

Mood-altering plants

No, no… not those plants. Calm down. Turns out, any ol’ plant can have a positive effect on our state of mind. As the team at Etsy notes, being emersed in greenery “nurtures the human/nature” connection.

Research shows that when we’re surrounded by plants, we just plain feel better due to the improved air quality and general sense of well-being indoor greenery provides. And when we’re happier and healthier, we’re more engaged in our work. One study from Exeter University found that a plant-filled office improves employee engagement and concentration levels, resulting in a 15% boost to productivity. 

Sustainable workplaces are incorporating plants and living walls to improve air quality
Living walls at Etsy’s headquarters in Brooklyn provide an oasis of calming green.

This explains why living walls are popping up in all the hip new workspaces – Etsy’s and Airbnb’s headquarters are prime examples. What’s more, greenery in commercial spaces creates a virtuous cycle. When plants metabolize air pollution, we feel better. Which makes us want to add more plants. Which reduces pollution even further. 

Irresistible staircases

Taking the stairs has always been on-trend amongst the “fiterati”. Maybe part of the cache is that, along with burning quads, we’ve had to suffer through cramped concrete stairwells that are one flickering lightbulb away from a horror movie. But take a look inside most office build-outs from the past few years and you’ll notice striking central stairways that are wide enough to accommodate two people walking abreast.

Irresistible stairs make a workplace more sustainable
Good for the body, good for the planet.

Stairs that simply beg to be walked on are no accident. Elevators account for about 10% of an office building’s electricity consumption on average. Going up or down a few floors under our own power adds up to significant energy savings over the course of a building’s life.

Old-school energy-efficient lighting

The second-worst offender when it comes to energy consumption in office spaces is artificial lighting. Seems odd, considering we have a massive source of free light available during business hours. (Hint: it’s the sun.) 

Encouraging people to use overhead lighting less is elegantly low-tech, especially in buildings sheathed mostly in glass. Placing enclosed spaces like closets and conference rooms in the center of each floor allows natural light from windows to penetrate farther into the interior of the building. “We want people to be in open, sun-lit spaces by default,” says Kyle Ewalt, who manages Atlassian’s new San Francisco space. “But we also provide plenty of darker enclosed spaces they can opt in to, if that’s what their work needs.”

Using natural light in the workplace is a sustainable choice
Here comes the sun.

Relying more on natural light is good for sustaining ourselves as humans, too. The changing level of sunlight throughout the day keeps our circadian rhythms grooving right along, promoting better sleep when we go home at night and a get-after-it attitude when we come back in the morning.

Of course, in the future, we’ll all be biologically enhanced with DNA from nocturnal geckoes so we can see in near-total darkness anyway. Take that, light bulbs!

In the meantime, our job as every-day office denizens is to adopt the sustainable practices that make sense for us. Ditching your supply of bottled water in favor of a reusable canteen is a great start. Maybe bring in an actual plate and fork from home so you’re not reliant on disposable cutlery. Throw in a nice pothos plant for your desk, and you’ll be breathing easy – until you’re blasting your quads on your bike commute home, that is.

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