Sustainable Offices in Human Services

Sustainability for workers in human services

There are myriad options for those of us who wish to make our work life more sustainable.  Car pool services, Zip Cars, telecommuting, and more.  These are effective and easy solutions for the millions of people that work in a traditional office environment.  For the rest of us, that work in the human services field for example, we cannot typically take advantage of these sustainable workplace options.  My job requires that I work with people, face to face.  So how can I do my part to clean up my work?

  1. Go paper-less.  Notice I didn’t say “paperless”, implying zero paper in the office.  Given that the Federal government is approximately 15 years behind the curve technologically, it is difficult to reduce the amount of paper required to fund social services.  However, there is plenty of internal paper generated doing this work.  I have built systems in my workplace that rely on databases and software that streamline our work.  For example, I took a form that we filled out to communicate changes in services for clients and developed a database that everyone can access that disseminates the same information without paper.  This is happening across the field, in part due to a sweeping Federal mandate.
  2. Upgrade that technology. Nonprofits are notorious technology scrooges.  We hold on to outdated machines and use the cheapest possible hardware.  This may be good for the bottom line (though this can be argued as well), but it is bad for the environment.  Older machines use much more energy at baseline, and suck more energy to fire up in the morning.  The U.S. Energy Department also recommends using Energy Star rated monitors, as they use the most energy of any machine on your desk.
  3. Consolidate appointments. Since our work is person-based, many of us rely on the “outpatient model” of treatment.  This is when one client comes to your office, receives an hour of treatment, and drives away.  This can be environmentally damning with everyone driving individually.  Luckily, most of my clients take the bus.  Consider consolidating appointments to 3-4 days each week and doing your office work from home on the remaining days.  Locating a human service organization on public transit lines, close to metro centers will also reduce the footprint of human service work.
  4. Take advantage of emerging tele-technology.  When I first started this work, computers weren’t used in our offices.  Everything was on paper.  Now, we have video-conferencing equipment in each location, and regularly connect with satellite offices and stakeholders by video-conference.  Just like telemedicine is a growing market, so is teletherapy.  Although no ideal clinically, connecting with clients and their family by videoconferencing is better than no contact at all.  Video-conferencing can save significant amounts of CO2 from entering the atmosphere by dramatically cutting travel.
  5. Compartmentalize. Although the movements within the field are to consolidate, streamline and integrate, sometimes it is best to compartmentalize.  Rather than bringing 300 people to a central office that disperse around a 100 mile area to do their work, consider opening smaller satellite offices in locations chosen for proximity to clients, public transit and other public resources.
  6. Co-locate. In the spirit of collaboration, co-locating is all the rage.  You’ve seen this when you visit a state office building that includes the DMV, Child Protection and Economic Services in one place.  Sometimes this is pure economics.  Sometimes this can be rolled into consumer experience and now, environmental impact.  Locating services that are often used in tandem can save everyone money and give the environment a little boost.

Do you work in the human services field or a non-traditional office environment?  What have you done to make your work a little greener?


Dusty is a social scientist and consultant in Vermont.


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