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

Remote work is better for the planet… right? Whether you’re downsizing or ditching the office entirely, it can be a boon for the environment—if you do it right.

Sabrina Jensen April 21, 2021
illustration of a person at a desk

There’s no doubt that the pandemic accelerated a mass shift to remote work, the likes of which we’ve never seen before—and studies are beginning to support the idea that hybrid remote work models are here to stay.

More than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as from an office, according to research from McKinsey & Company—meaning that 3x to 4x as many people could continue working from home as were doing so before the pandemic.

Although working from home does have its downsides and it’s easy to find ourselves longing for the days of water cooler banter, we’ve also settled in and begun to enjoy the perks of work-life integration.

Maybe we’re enjoying close access to the fridge or feeling comfortable in loungewear over our foregone office attire. Maybe we’re simply enjoying spending more time with our loved ones. But the most meaningful benefit of the abrupt global shift to remote work has been its positive impact on the environment.

For instance, the reduction in commuting workers may have contributed to NASA’s reported drop in air pollution in April 2020 over the northeastern U.S.

With significantly reduced carbon emissions, and offices either closing their doors or consolidating into smaller spaces, it seems like a good news story for Mother Nature.

But that’s not the whole story.

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Why ditching the office can be bad for the environment

Hootsuite’s head offices are in Vancouver, B.C., so we’re keeping a close eye on what this shift looks like in Canada. In Q3 of 2020, there were 4 million square feet of vacant office space in Canada’s downtown office markets.

It’s not surprising, considering the flight from urban hubs that occurred as a result of the pandemic’s widespread global lockdowns and the many companies that have since announced they’re going fully remote or hybrid, with plans to reduce their office space.

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

Remember though, that those offices are full of desks, chairs, tech equipment, decor, and more.

infographic showing the environmental benefits of Hootsuite's office downsizing

With all this downsizing, you might be wondering: exactly where is all that stuff going? Over 10 million tons of environmentally harmful furniture waste, known as “F-waste,” end up in landfills annually in Canada and the U.S., according to Canadian Interiors. If you’ve ever tried to get rid of a bed or a couch, you probably know what we’re talking about.

In the workplace, a functioning office cubicle represents anywhere between 300 to 700 pounds of waste. A typical desk chair alone contains dozens of different materials and chemicals, which are hazardous to the environment if the item is not disposed of properly.

As the office reductions and closures continue, now is the time to think seriously about what to do with all that F-waste—and an approach that considers the environment and communities where employees live and work is a great place to start.

How you can help your employer reduce its carbon footprint

In 2020, Hootsuite swapped our bustling collection of global offices for the virtual world (like many of you). And in 2021, after conducting a series of polls to find out how our people wanted to work in the future, we decided to shift to a “distributed workforce” strategy.

Taking the feedback our people gave us, we decided that in select regions, we’d convert some of our larger offices (which we’ve always called ‘nests’) into ‘perches’—our version of a ‘hot desk’ model. We chose this new approach to support the mental health of our employees by allowing them autonomy over where and how they chose to work.

To kick off the Perch Pilot, we redesigned our Vancouver office space with inclusivity and flexibility in mind. Now that we were focusing on collaborative furniture over a traditional office setup, we were left with many desks, chairs and monitors that needed a home—begging the question: what would we do with all of that F-waste?

To ensure that we got it right, we partnered with Green Standards, an organization that uses charitable donation, resale, and recycling to keep workplace furniture and equipment out of the landfill while generating positive local community impact. Essentially, they’d take all our stuff and turn it into social and environmental good.

infographic showing the community impact of Hootsuite's office downsizing

They helped us turn 19 tons of corporate waste into a total value of $19,515 in-kind charitable donations to the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services of Vancouver, and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

Hootsuite’s partnership with Green Standards resulted in 19 tons of materials diverted from landfills and 65 tonnes of CO2 emissions reduced. These efforts are equal to reducing gasoline consumption by 7,253 gallons, growing 1,658 tree seedlings for 10 years, and offsetting electricity use from nine homes for one year.

What we learned when we downsized our office

Through our work with Green Standards, we were able to identify a significant problem and reduce waste before it hit the landfill. And we learned some things along the way from our partner that we’re happy to pass along to you so we can all do our part to help the environment.

  1. Create an office furniture inventory. A thorough inventory is a must. Clear information about what we had in our offices saved us headaches and allowed us to effectively measure our future donation and impact.
  2. Understand project goals (and opportunities). Once you understand what you’re working with, you need to figure out what you and your team want from the project. Whether it’s pain-free removal or social impact, identifying goals at the onset is a must to make a plan that’ll help you achieve them.
  3. Prepare for the risks of managing a large surplus. Budget isn’t the only thing on the line when figuring out what to do with a ton of extra office furniture and equipment. Time and effort, vendor relations, and on-site safety—all of which impact the overall project outcome—require equal attention in a large move.
  4. Engage a reliable logistics provider. The wrong vendor can interfere with scheduling, damage items, ruin a furniture sale, mix up locations, or cause friction with other stakeholders. They’re the backbone of the project and need to be as reliable and capable as possible.
  5. Document and report everything. Project documentation is the single most valuable planning tool because it shows where everything went at the end of the project and helps prove return on investment (ROI) on important corporate social responsibility objectives. Being able to track every item to its end location ensures that things were actually recycled or donated—and not dumped when no one was looking.

Throughout the process, we came to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or solution to office space sustainability. In our journey to find what worked best for our employees and our community, and through many conversations with the team at Green Standards, we came to understand how we could bring value to organizations in need within our community through assets that we had at our fingertips.

infographic showing the program impact of Hootsuite's office downsizing

We realized that often the things you need to make an impact are right in front of you.

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

Stay in touch with us on Instagram to learn more about our corporate social responsibility initiatives.

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By Sabrina Jensen

Sabrina is the Global Corporate Communications Strategist at Hootsuite, where she drives the company’s public relations and executive communications initiatives.

Read more by Sabrina Jensen

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