Stop presenting sustainability as a Con

Published on Tuesday, 27 November 2012 14:40
Written by Pauline Leonard

It is sometimes hard to square our natural self-interest with our wish to save the planet. The "design turn" of the early 21st century, which is seeing workplaces throughout the public and private sectors transformed to reflect ever-growing environmental considerations, increasingly offers worrying evidence of this difficulty

Many of the changes taking place in our offices are necessary and potentially of great benefit. Why, then, according to a recent study by the University of Southampton's Work Futures Research Centre, do more and more workers regard them with cynicism and even contempt?

The answer lies in the nascent suspicion of "greenwashing" – a perception that the sustainability agenda is now habitually exploited as a convenient smokescreen for cutbacks. Essentially, employees are becoming convinced that the alleged eco-friendliness of their surroundings is merely a vehicle for cost-saving exercises. "Green" is habitually conflated with "lean" and "mean".

Of course, the archetypal image of workers happily ensconced in their own individual rooms, complete with nameplates on the doors, has been fading for years. Environmental considerations have not been alone in driving this shift: advances in technology and mobility have also proved crucial.

As a result, employees are perfectly aware of the need for innovation and in many cases have no fundamental objection to moves towards being "greener". Yet the careless and occasionally disingenuous ways in which these moves are presented and explained to them are eroding sympathy and fomenting distrust.

The facilities manager at an IT firm that took part in our research provided a striking example of the extraordinary ambiguity that invites "greenwashing" accusations. Having initially insisted the redesigning of the company's premises was "about improving the working environment", he openly praised sustainability's role in "reducing costs and supporting efficiency and growth".

Scepticism can easily metamorphose into revolt in the face of such inconsistency. As one interviewee observed: "If you start treating people like children they start behaving like children." Worse still, what begins as rebellion can end in damaging declines in morale and productivity.

The research revealed how one dismayed worker produced three cards – "I'm not busy", "I'm busy" and "I'm completely out of the office as far as you're concerned" – and exhibited them accordingly to signify her mood. Another regularly retreated to the toilet, complaining it was the only place where he was able to think properly. Warnings handed out as punishment for failure to comply with new hot-desking policies came to be viewed as "badges of honour".

The proliferation of open-plan layouts appears to be the subject of particular resentment. End-of-shift desk-clearing, far-flung photocopiers, the arbitrary accrual or removal of waste bins – all emerged as frequent complaints in the study.

Inevitably, noise was also a major bugbear among respondents. For some the issue was a "surgical silence" and connotations of a surveillance culture; for others it was an insufferable chatter, sufficient in one case to demand the donning of industrial ear-protectors.

But in the end there is one din that resonates above all others, and that is the rhetoric of sustainability.

It is the willingness of managers to rely on clichéd ecological discourse, their zeal for falling back on lazy tropes that invite resentment and doubt, that is so detrimental to employees' sensitivities. As a consequence, the belief that the "design turn" is merely a front for austerity – and that sustainability itself is therefore some sort of con – is spreading.

The most disturbing corollary is that workers are being turned off the green agenda at the very time when they should be embracing it. They see sustainability as a clandestine attack on their own space, a clumsy attempt to disguise a threat to their own well-being as an enhancement of the wider world's. Only far greater care in the presentation .justification and management of how and why our working environments are changing will halt – and, we can but hope, reverse – this alarming trend.

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