Could Your Office Be Greener and Leaner?

Much of the latest discussion of eco-green services in our industry has focused around battery-powered equipment, native plantings and ecologically-friendly maintenance techniques. While these are important topics that are worthy of discussion, they are only part of the whole picture. That’s why this month, we’re highlighting a few eco-green business practices that don’t get as much consideration, and explore how a green office can also be a lean office.

Since the birth of the personal computer, business gurus all over the world have been predicting the arrival of the paperless office. All the documents you need to generate, store and call up would be replaced with digital versions, which would eliminate the logistical headache and environmental impact of paper.

For most of us, the completely paperless office is a mythical beast. You may have heard of a business being completely paperless, but you’ve never actually clapped eyes on one yourself. That said, offices where the amount of paper has been dramatically reduced are far from mythical; they’re entirely real.

Vijaya Gajjal runs one such company in Palo Alto, California. As owner of Hortus Design Sustainable Landscapes, she tries to keep her business running lean, environmentally speaking and—for the most part—she is successful. “I use an outside service for bookkeeping, so we try to keep everything digital, to make things simple,” she said.

Gajjal is extremely environmentally conscious, personally and professionally, so she tries to limit the amount of incoming paper as well. “I try to call people who are sending me documents, like suppliers, and ask them to go digital,” she said. “I would like to keep a low footprint, and only print on paper when it is necessary. When we do have to print something, we recycle it when we’re done.”

There will always be some clients or vendors who don’t feel comfortable unless they have a physical copy of a document that they can hold in their hands, so it’s good to make allowances. However, you may be surprised at how open people are to the idea of going paperless. “I’ve found that, usually, my clients aren’t uncomfortable with the idea at all,” said Gajjal. “Even my 83-year-old customers are pretty tech savvy, so it works out.”

You might make the argument that, being based in Palo Alto, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Gajjal has a stronger incentive to go paperless than most, and you’d be right. However, Kurt Horvath, owner of Intrinsic Landscaping Inc., in Glenview, Illinois, has no such pressure. Still, his business has significantly reduced its paper output, and he says there’s no question that they’ve become more efficient as a result.

“Because everything is on the web, or in the cloud, when we go out to do maintenance on projects and the guys take pictures, they get automatically uploaded into the digital files that we’ve established for managing projects,” he said. “When my guys are at job sites, they have tablets that can access all the drawings and documents that are relevant to that specific project right then and there.”

Remote access to electronic documents is helpful, even when the documents would have been stored only a few rooms away. Don’t believe it? Let’s run through a morning meeting in a mostly paper office versus a mostly paperless one.

In the traditional version, everybody shows up and checks in, each crew member checking the office clock, one by one, as they write in their times and signatures for accuracy’s sake. That takes five minutes. Then everybody gathers to hear the news of the day, while the office manager passes out the day’s schedule. That’s another five minutes.

Only it’s actually ten minutes, because one of your crew leaders pipes up that they’re pretty sure the Peterson property got trimmed last week, and doesn’t need another visit. Your office manager has to stop what he’s doing and go dig out the file from the back office. Their side discussion was a necessary evil, though, because the leader was right, and saved his crew 45 minutes of wasted effort. Finally, you take a minute to give your crews a quick refresher on heat safety, because it’s a scorcher this week.

In an office that’s largely digital, clocking in only takes one minute, as each crew member hits the checkbox by his name in the timecard app on the crew leader’s tablet. The office manager sends out all the schedules via Google Docs with the push of a button, while the staff hears the news of the day.

The crew leader notices the same discrepancy, and shoots off a text to the office manager: “Pretty sure we did Petersen last week.” The office manager quietly steps away to his desk, pulls up the schedule logs, and sends the crew leader a revised schedule. Finally, you finish up with a quick reminder to crew leaders to check the OSHA heat safety app installed on their phones periodically throughout the day, because it’s a scorcher this week.

Six minutes, as compared to 16 minutes, may not seem like much of an efficiency gain, but when you roll it out across the length and breadth of your business, you can see it’s a significant improvement. If you decide that this route is right for you, don’t forget that used electronics are recyclable as well.

E-waste is a growing problem, both because the heavy metals found in electronics can leach into the environment, and because new metals have to be mined to supply hardware manufacturers. If your clients see that you recycle your old gadgets, not only will it reinforce your eco-green image, but it will remind them that they can follow suit.

Both Gajjal and Horvath take the recycling ethos from the back office into the field, too. Horvath does a lot of green roof and green wall installations, so he ends up with an unusual amount of waste metal for a landscape company, and that all gets recycled. Gajjal likes to make creative use of recycled materials in her design/build work.

“Let’s say you have concrete and we need to remove it for some reason,” she said. “We can cut it, and break it into sections that we can use as stepping stones. We can rearrange them as part of a patio, or a retaining wall, so that we aren’t just throwing away the concrete.” If the client is looking for a different look, the concrete goes off to a recycling center, where it’s processed into base rock so it can be used again.

The same goes for yard waste. Grass clippings and leaves can be composted into an organic soil amendment, while excess wood can be turned into mulch.

It seems, for the most part, that running a business in a sustainable fashion is simply a matter of common sense. You turn the lights off when a room isn’t being used; you turn off the AC when you’re gone for the day. Yet, the common sense of today is the conservation measure of yesteryear. So consider what part of today’s conservation measures you might wish to adopt, because one day, they’ll be plain common sense.