Sustainability and people: A starting point

Mexico CityNot too long ago I posted an article to my Facebook profile called “Telecommuting two days a week could save billions.” The piece goes through the multitude of cost savings involved when a company allows workers to work from home, including gas, utilities, rental space, and most importantly… time. Time to spend on getting stuff done, time to spend with family, time to spend on things that make an employee happy. So you could say telecommuting can also save a worker’s sanity.

The Facebook posting resulted in a short discussion from a few of my friends (real names replaced with fake ones to protect privacy):

Marla: Yes!
Bern: I’ll go you one better: Why not just a shorter working week? Let’s all spend less time toiling, spending $, consuming, etc.
Evan: But that could also cost you billions on lost productivity!
Bern: Yes. Less product and more free time.
Woody: Let’s all try this:
Bern: Or:
Kelly: I’m a big proponent of the four day work week (four 10-hour days) that some gov’t agencies in Utah (and other states) have adopted. A three-day weekend = happier employees. Happier employees = better productivity. Some countries with better qualities of life have 2 months of vacation. The American employee averages two weeks a year and rarely takes those two weeks. Where did that get us?

Marla is a photographer with dogs and kids. Bern is a New Jersey lawyer and married with kids. Evan is a web developer and marketing professional in his twenties. Woody is a self-employed graphic designer with a wife and kid. I’m Kelly. We’re all somewhat progressive, interested in making money, providing for our families, and concerned with atrocities that occur in society. I agree with Evan that productivity can worsen, but it really depends on the product, the industry, the company, and the worker. I wholeheartedly believe that employee morale would improve, which is a sustainable concept in its own right.

I recently worked with someone who said he “hated” the word sustainability. Granted, he said he hated lots of things, but I can understand his disdain for an overused term with an enormously broad meaning. Broad in scope, maybe, but the idea of being “sustainable” — in business, in the way we treat the environment, in the way we treat other people, in the way we treat animals — is by and large a path to the same thing… the greater good.

The article can be attributed to social sustainability. This is the concept that future generations of people will have better access to social resources based on sustainable business practices, causes, development, investing (and divesting), etc., that are occurring right now. You could say that oil exploration off the shores of North America is not sustainable, when you consider the ongoing scientific studies that explain we’ll run out of oil at some point in the near future. The recent oil spill in the Gulf is forcing oil and equipment executives to spend all of their energies on measuring public relation metrics instead of channeling everything into actually stopping the oil from gushing into the Gulf. Imagine a world in which oil profits and CEO bonuses are reduced and part of those funds sent back into learning initiatives on alternative energies. Employees of these oil companies can then know that they are part of not only ongoing exploration of oil to feed our country’s addiction to it, but also that they are working on a path to the greater good — even if the inevitable “good” in this situation (the permanent replacement of oil with cleaner energy) happens after they die. Now that’s a sustainable existence.

Being sustainable starts with people. Labor and civil rights, employee morale, and proper education are all starting points on the road to the greater good. We are lucky to live in a time when technology can offer a more transparent glimpse into how processes work and how many humans might be disenfranchised or screwed over — especially with social media on the web and internet-aided activism. Some call it “lack of privacy,” but I think it has more to do with reeducating America. Reeducating for a sustainable future.

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