Edition 116, November 2021

How to Capture the Value in Workspace Change

By Trevor Langdon, Green Standards, Ltd

The office of tomorrow doesn’t look like an office. Cubicles are out; cafes are in. Heads-down work is done at home now. If you’re commuting, you want to be collaborating. When a distributed workforce only comes in once a week, they need maximum shared space. This rethink is happening around the world -- and it is vital that it doesn’t stop at the floorplans. While we’re reevaluating how we build new workspaces, we should also consider what we do with the old ones.

Surplus furniture that would otherwise be destined for landfill can find second homes through resale and donation, while the remaining furniture waste can usually be responsibly recycled. Often, however, that doesn’t happen. Overworked facilities managers look for an easy out, and that out is usually shaped like a dumpster. But the advantages of moving the right way are too good to ignore: With a bit of planning, your office decommissioning project can benefit your people, profit, and planet.

Office managers who’ve never dealt with a move or large-scale decommission before and want to do it in a sustainable and community-friendly manner should first get a sense of the size of the issue.

A functioning office cubicle represents anywhere between 300 to 700 pounds of waste. The majority of that is ferrous metal, wood, and plastic. The typical office chair alone contains dozens of different materials and chemicals, not substances we want to send back into the earth. These workstations are a big contributor to the more than 10 million tons of furniture waste that end up in landfills annually in the U.S. and Canada.

How will you know if your project is part of the problem? Look for the landfill diversion rate. Anything above 95% is acceptable, with 100% always being the goal. If your solution provider is not using principles of the circular economy to donate, resell, or recycle your surplus furniture and equipment, it is unlikely they will be able to reach a landfill diversion rate above 75%.

What did you do with your furniture the last time you moved homes? Even if you hired movers, you probably didn’t take everything with you. That old sofa you no longer wanted may have been offered to a neighbor or family member; that hand-me-down coffee table might have been handed down again or put on the curb on recycling pickup day. You should be looking for the same solutions when your work situation changes.

When making decisions about what to do with your still viable office furniture and equipment, you need to realize that one company’s out-of-date furniture is another organization’s conference table, lobby chairs or work desks. Not only will donating to non-profits, schools, and charities help support your community, but it continues the lifecycle of products that would otherwise be destined for the dump.

Where your office is based is also the place where employees and their families live and work. When donating, do it actively and consciously. Choose a beneficiary that aligns with the values of your brand and your team. If many of your employees or colleagues are parents, you might donate to the schools that their kids attend. If your company is committed to a diverse workforce, consider donating to a mentorship program that helps underrepresented segments of the population succeed in the workplace.

Finding the right charitable partners should be a joy, not a chore. Think of it as an investment in your community you get to make just by efficiently doing your job. How often do you get to do that?

There has never been an office-wide email detailing how you threw out a couple hundred desks. But a photo of the local school using the desks that your employees have spent hours working on can evoke an emotional connection to this good deed. While improving office morale is not the top goal in diverting your company’s furniture waste from landfill, it is a wonderful byproduct that increases goodwill towards your organization. Having thoughtful, detail-oriented leaders who care what happens to a worker’s old chair displays environmental and social awareness.

Don’t forget to share on social platforms as well. A LinkedIn post liked by many of your employees can be used as much as a recruiting tool as to retain and empower current employees.

The number-one concern about solving the issue of furniture waste via the circular economy is cost. What is often ignored is the value of the resale market. Most communities have large-scale organizations that resell used goods and sometimes double as a charity themselves, and they may be willing to accept surplus inventories in bulk. This will help offset costs of moving furniture and equipment out of the office and into their new homes.

When every option has been exhausted, it is time to recycle. This category represents the items that aren’t up to the quality of those destined for donation and resale and are often made up of treated wood and metal. It is much more sophisticated than the blue bin: Specialized recycling can generate returns on investment, process a variety of items, and reintroduce materials back into the manufacturing process. Before going just anywhere to recycle, see who specializes in wood and in plastics – you may find that you can still recoup costs while avoiding the landfill.

Even when your move or renovation is complete, keep in mind the values of the circular economy when choosing your newest office equipment and furniture. Is that communal furniture durable? How easy are those café-style chairs to recycle? How long will they stay within the company? And where do we think this furniture can have a second home years down the road?

The office of today isn’t the office of tomorrow. We will always be creating new spaces to collaborate, and ambitious companies will always aim to inspire and engage their teams in these spaces. With a sustainable decommissioning program, the path to those new spaces can be as inspiring as the spaces themselves.

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Trevor Langdon
Trevor Langdon is an entrepreneur and corporate sustainability advocate with a focus on commercial office waste and environmental reporting. Since 2011, Trevor has contributed to the growth and strategic direction of Green Standards through various roles and currently serves as president of the company. Trevor has worked on several of the largest corporate decommission initiatives in recent history — often to the order of millions of square feet and tens of thousands of employees.