In this edition Saving the planet takes a look at the work that psychologists with an interest in environmental and sustainability issues can do within organisations. Organisational psychologists have tremendous scope to be involved in sustainability issues. We invited environmental and organisational psychologist, Dr Rob Hall, to write about the role of organisational psychology in developing sustainable working environments. We are keen to hear from other organisational psychologists with more examples of the ways in which organisational psychologists are contributing to sustainability issues.

Applying organisational psychology to sustainable workplace design

By Dr Rob Hall MAPS, environmental and organisational psychologist

An interesting dynamic is playing out in the current employment market. There is a widespread shortage of skilled workers for both blue and white collar roles across the country. With salary and perks almost a given, employers are increasingly confronted by young employees who are choosing their employer based on the environmental (read ‘green') qualities of the workplace.

As a consequence, an increasing number of large organisations are looking to rent or buy buildings that meet the five or six star Green Building Council's Green Star Rating as one measure to reduce workforce churn.

Because most of the new commercial buildings are funded by organisations that will also be the landlords of the building, the pressure from would-be tenants to find five or six star green buildings is driving the sustainability agenda in the commercial construction sector. This is particularly so at the ‘big end of town'.

Much of the design work on major buildings is being done by major engineering and project management companies such as Bligh Voller Neild, Arups and GHD. For example, in September 2007 GHD unveiled their concept building, Zero, designed for the corner of Swan Street and Punt Road, Melbourne. Zero is so named because the challenge addressed by the engineering team was to achieve zero net annual external power consumption, an outcome that equates to zero operating C02 emissions. The GHD press release says:

The Zero concept also engages building occupants in energy-efficiency efforts, whilst aiming for maximum occupant comfort. At least 80% of Zero's NLA has direct views to either outdoor or atrium green spaces, providing a visual connection to the environment. Though the design does not incorporate car parking, it provides good public transport connections as well as showers and change rooms for occupants who walk or cycle to work. Displays throughout the building enable occupants to see energy and water consumption, raising awareness of efficient usage.

This sounds just the kind of situation in which organisational psychologists would have been involved. Interestingly, no formally trained psychologists of any persuasion were part of the project team, and the decisions about the interaction of the built form and the occupants were made by the engineering and architectural designers. It may be that the end result is excellent from both social and ergonomic perspectives. It seems a shame, however, that this example is not unusual and that organisational psychologists are not making their presence felt in what is a rapidly changing and dynamic area - the search for environmentally and socially sustainable working environments.

In the February 2002 issue of InPsych, Jeff Patrick expressed the view that organisational psychology was in crisis. At the heart of his article was the question, "What can an organisational psychologist do that nobody else can?". While Jeff's focus was on what might be called ‘traditional organisational psychology' - human resources, selection and the like - we might rephrase the question now as, "Why are organisational psychologists not more involved in environmental sustainability?".

Some are, of course. They are working as change agents within organisations and making use of tools such as the ADKAR model to bring about a variety of cultural and operational changes linked to sustainability. (ADKAR stands for the hurdles that need to be crossed to bring about consistent change. These are Awareness of the need to change, Desire to participate and support the change, Knowledge of how to change, Ability to implement the change on a day to day basis, and Reinforcement to keep the change in place).

Much of the change being initiated, as it bears on sustainability, concerns matters such as energy use and remembering to switch off computer monitors at the end of the day. These steps make a valuable contribution to the overarching task of combating resource use and, consequently, environmental degradation and global warming. These changes, however, have to take the physical structure of the workplace as a given.

Discussions with architects whose practice is heavily weighted toward commercial buildings highlights an interesting fact. The majority of clients present with a desire to have a ‘green building' but have little idea about how this aspiration for green stars might link to what happens inside the building. This knowledge gap is left to be filled by the architect (or engineer) who has to imagine how the workplace activities take place and the kind of workplace culture that will be imported into the building and subsequently shaped in part by the building.

If organisational psychologists want to increase their relevance to organisations, they could do much worse than push their way into the discussion about sustainable workplace design before the CAD machines start putting the walls in place. They may also just help to save the planet.

On the ‘home front', the APS National Office is taking on the green office challenge. We have formed a National Office sustainability group, and, as a first step, are planning an energy use and emissions audit, to measure and manage our carbon emissions and get recommendations for reduction strategies. And then there's all the work to do on changing behaviours ... Any organisational psychologists out there who would like to help us take on the green office challenge? For a useful website on greening your own offices, try www.greenhouse.gov.au/education/tips/work.html