This is the third part in a four-part series on the future of technology in the office, envisioning how office life may be transformed by 2020 based on current trends. As technology continues to revolutionize the way we do business, it also stands to reshape the way our offices function, from processing waste to environmental concerns. Previously, we discussed how the office place will change in general over the next few years, and explored some specific emerging technologies that are transforming our workflows. Now, we will discuss some of the ways these new technologies may help our offices become more environmentally sustainable in 2020.

Reduced Paper Waste

The mass exodus of our society toward digital documents—and away from paper—is well underway. An increasing number of magazines and newspapers are shutting down their print presses in favor of online-only versions. More consumers are reading books on digital devices like Kindle, and fewer are buying physical books. Contracts can now be signed and stored digitally, and more of us are opting for “paperless billing” for our utilities and credit cards. While paper probably won’t disappear completely (at least for a while), some are predicting that almost everything paper-related will be nearly obsolete by 2020. While the end of paper might produce some mixed feelings, a positive consequence is that offices will be able to reduce their physical waste significantly.

Continued Emphasis on “Green” Building Practices

Thanks in part to initiatives like LEED certification, the move toward sustainable building shows no signs of slowing down—in fact, by 2020, “green” building practices are likely to become the norm rather than the exception. From improved energy-efficient designs to the use of environmentally friendly building materials, sustainability is becoming a driving factor in new constructions. Building Design & Construction suggests that LEED certification itself is becoming less relevant as green practices become more commonplace. As a result, look for even more environmentally friendly office places by 2020, including an increase in the number of “zero-net-energy” buildings.

“Smart Offices” Improve Efficiency and Reduce Waste

We’ve already talked at length about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in this series, but one significant application of the technology can be found within the office infrastructure itself. As “smart offices” detect and predict patterns of usage and traffic, they can make adjustments to electrical, water and HVAC controls accordingly, allowing these buildings to consume these resources with greater precision and less waste. We can thus expect our office spaces to become even more energy efficient in the next few years.

Trend Toward Biophilic Design

Amazon recently made positive headlines with the unveiling of their new Spheres structure in Seattle—an innovative office where employees work in an environment surrounded by plant life. This is just one of many recent examples of biophilic design, the trend that takes “green building” to the next level by integrating greenery into the architecture itself. Not only does this trend reinforce the natural bond between humans and nature, it also has a practical application of improving air quality in the office—which in turn improves our brain activity and productivity. Watch for more offices to integrate this type of design in the next few years.

While the overall trend is for the office place to become more sustainable than ever before by 2020, one possible vulnerability we see is in the rise of “e-waste” as our devices become obsolete. Without a plan for recycling in place, even the most sustainable offices could erase significant amounts of their progress. In the next post, we’ll discuss ways the office place in 2020 can reduce their carbon footprint even further.