Sustainable Workplaces in the Age of Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has put health and wellness at the forefront of discussions about sustainability.

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This week our 2020 100 Best Green Workplaces in Oregon list went live. The annual roster showcases companies and nonprofits that are at the top of their game in implementing green workplace practices.

Many are asking how employers can continue to practice sustainability in a new business environment that encourages remote working and physical distancing.

But experts say the upheaval is an ideal time to reboot workplace systems to put them on a greener footing. Sustainability is equated with health and wellness, critical elements of getting the economy up and running.

Justin Zeulner, executive director of The Wave, a new coalition of Northwest businesses that have pledged to address sustainability challenges, says the focus on health and wellness as a means of recovering from the pandemic — such as improving air and water quality, and purchasing from local suppliers — has been part of environmentalists’ discourse for decades.

“When those in the environmental movement say we want to reopen in a healthier environment that minimizes environmental impact, that is directly connected to health and wellness,” says Zeulner.

“Health has not been part of the dialogue on sustainability,” says Megan Shuler, program manager for the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “As we reopen, sustainability will not be just about operational efficiencies, it will also be about public health.”

Members of The Wave coalition include zoos, aquariums, science and technology centers, hotels, restaurants, universities, airports, and convention centers. One area they are focusing on is the need for businesses to support the local food sector. The group’s members buy food at a high rate, and they have discovered how the pandemic has exposed inefficiencies of relying on the global food supply chain.

“The pandemic has highlighted that there is not a system of local food,” says Zeulner. “At a system level, we are looking at how to enable staff to support the local system.”

Those organizations in the 100 Best Green Workplaces are already familiar with sustainable practices, making the transition to recovering from the pandemic smoother than for those employers that have taken no steps.

Many green workplaces, for example, have already made efficiency improvements to buildings and operations that will also help protect the health of employees. Greener office buildings that have improved air-filtration systems that eliminate particulate matter, for example, improve both health and the environment.

“It is now more important than ever for buildings to adopt a sustainable framework that is part of a health and wellness strategy,” says Elaine Aye, associate at RWDI, a consulting firm. “With COVID-19 you have an opportunity to lean on sustainability. The pandemic has put a focus on environmental justice.”

Businesses focused on cutting costs because of the economic fallout from the lockdown may cause more organizations to shun costly environmental upgrades. But experts point out that reducing energy and waste saves businesses money in the long run.

“People will have to be more efficient and less wasteful. By being more resourceful, it will reduce costs for businesses,” says Aye.

She points out that building design of the future will focus on using technology that monitors employee health, such as tracking occupants’ temperatures, as well as energy consumption. “The technology will force us to be aware of a building’s performance,” says Aye.

Remote working is also putting renewed focus on the possibility for businesses to reduce emissions caused by business travel and commuting. “We have the opportunity to think about the environmental impact of travel,” says Zeulner. The pandemic shows “we can travel less. We don’t always have to come into work.”

As the 100 Best Green Workplaces in Oregon return to work, the focus on employee health and wellness will not be a big leap.

“These green businesses are well positioned for economic recovery,” says Shuler.