The sustainable triangle of work and the workplace

Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash

Today is Earth Day 2022. When we hear the word ‘sustainability’ we now instinctively consider the health and viability of the planet. If we’ve been successful in heeding the multiple emergencies sounded in recent years, it’s in this regard, at least. Baby steps when we need giant strides.

The planet is also one third of the rather wonderful Triple Bottom Line (3BL) analytical tool, and one that — to which my praise hints — I use all the time. The others are people and the organisation (sometimes referred to as ‘profit’ which somewhat pulls against the ethos). It’s creation is attributed to business writer John Elkington in 1994, albeit it was actually coined (it seems) by Freer Spreckley in 1981.

I would usually draw the 3BL as a triangle. After all, triangles are the most fun we can have with three sides. Which led me to stumble across a similar tool, created by the UN at the World Summit in 2005 in its definition of sustainable development. They held that all development can only be sustainable if it satisfies three mutually-dependent criteria — social , economic and environmental. The meaning associated with each aspect (or ‘dimension’ as it prefers) differs in the associated detail from that in the 3BL.

The ‘magic triangle’ as it has been referred to in some sources appears to have originated in 1996. Search ‘sustainability’ and Wikipedia will tell us that it comprises all three dimensions, even though we tend to think of it as environmental. The article also tells us that the idea has no discoverable point of origin.

The suggestion here is that when considering work and the workplace, instead of framing our need to consider the needs of people, the organisation and the planet in accounting and business terms, we might better use the sustainable reference. In moving ‘people’ considerations from the individual to the collective, too, within the gamut of the ‘human’, we might beneficially encourage us all to consider not just our own needs, as has been a feature of the pandemic era, but those of others, too.

I offer therefore a tweak to both models: the sustainability triangle comprising human, organisational and environmental needs as a framework for all considering all strategies as they pertain to work and the workplace:

There are other renditions of the above published, so I can’t lay claim to original thinking here — but what I have done is offer some suggestions as to what we might pursue within each. The stuff we can do today. Updated for today. Because that’s what we’re often short of.

Environmental sustainability

· The climate emergency is the priority facing the species, bar none. While our needs are complex, we instinctively put it above everything else.

· Everyone is able to make a positive individual contribution to environmental sustainability. We educate and inform, set targets and report to enable us to make better choices.

· Buildings are responsible for 40% of the planet’s CO2 emissions. We therefore only seek and use the space we absolutely need. We obtain the smart tools and technologies we need to do so.

· We consider where work is best performed and respond to what we conclude. Each ‘desk’ (position) in an office equates to 1 tonne of CO2 per year, the equivalent of driving a diesel car 6,000 miles. We provide only what we know we need. If we don’t know, we find out.

· We prioritise avoidance over consumption and disposal.

· We create and provide less, but do it well — allowing our host communities to provide amenities and services: the Minimum Viable Workplace. See the previous post.

· In doing so, we create workspace worth sharing — we can drive this by focussing on what is important, what matters, not embedded-carbon creative flights of fancy.

· The renovation of buildings is prioritised over new build, considering the entire lifecycle of a structure. Industry accreditation methods need to recognise and prioritise this, too. They are far too skewed toward the new.

· We resist the temptation to outsource environmental responsibility to accreditation schemes, and own our targets and choices instead. We work with such schemes only where they enhance or support those aims.

· We need to show a new confidence in taking decisions for environmental reasons. It’s not an ‘also’. Who has reduced office space and stated this as the prime driver?

Human sustainability

· Decency — being excellent to each other, the Bill & Ted philosophy of life. Probably the most important human factor of all. From decency, everything else flows.

· Meaningful work with common purpose: we need to know that what we do makes a contribution to an overall mission, that it can make a positive difference.

· Shared values — not those decreed from an executive away day, but those that have emerged through stories and practice, that express our belief in what we’re doing.

· Safety — all aspects — rational, emotional and physical — elemental, fundamental, non-negotiable, not able to be diluted.

· Encouragement for experimentation — or ‘safe-to-fail probes’ as Dave Snowden described, or the lovely idea of sending out ‘Trojan Mice’.

· An appreciation that we need to be with our teams and colleagues, because no-one works alone — or alone, because we need to be ready to work together.

· Technology and tools to make our working lives as simple and easy as possible, free of needless ‘just-in-case’ policies, processes, rules and regulations that add nothing, and yet dispirit and discourage.

· Space, tools and encouragement to both develop existing relationships and pursue new.

· Dialogue — free, open and two-way — with our organisation and colleagues, that issues or ideas can be voiced, considered and responded to. That our voice matters.

Organisational sustainability

· The organisation needs to survive and thrive — it’s not at odds with environmental and human sustainability. To achieve this, its mission and reason for being need to be clear, ethical and evolve with the world around it.

· The wellbeing of the organisation’s people is vital. It begins with the nature of the work and how it’s performed. That’s the tough part. Having the physical space contribute is the easy part.

· How innovation occurs must be understood and harnessed. It’s more often than not a mystery. It’s the productivity of tomorrow.

· To give innovation the best chance, the organisation needs to enable its people to work together, providing the tools, technology, freedom, encouragement and space to be able to do so.

· The workspace provided needs to be able to justify the investment in it, in terms of value provided. The organisation has to be able to quantify and qualify the value of people being physically together. That means asking different — and better — questions.

· Costs need to be managed, but not at the expense of human and environmental sustainability. Cost reduction is not an organisational strategy.

· Physical workspace should reflect the commitment to environmental and human sustainability, rather than be an expression of power.

· The organisation needs to integrate with its host communities — they’re not just a landing point or a transport hub, somewhere to pass through.

· Development, growth and opportunity must sit at the heart of the organisation’s people strategy.

· Equality of opportunity and outcome must be understood and relentlessly pursued. The climate emergency doesn’t differentiate between us. Neither must we.

Challenge the above, pull them apart, put them back together. If we remove one, we should put another in its place. We can do all of this. We have to do all of this.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog