The people power behind your sustainability program

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A key hurdle many companies face when implementing a sustainability strategy is building awareness and engagement among the ranks. Dr Kaushik Sridhar wants to help you and your organisation walk the walk.

Sustainability is being used by various businesses globally as a vehicle to increase engagement with stakeholders including clients, government and employees. Why? It has a lot to do with the Millennial generation and a trend it is setting in the workplace. Increasing numbers of Millennials around the world hope and wish for ‘something more’ from a job – a move beyond chasing profits and positions, to seeking a sense of purpose.

A Cone Millennial Cause Study from 2006 showed that three out of four of the Millennial generation (those born between 1978 and 1998) want to work for a company that “cares about how it impacts and contributes to society”. In a Deloitte Millennial Survey from 2019, which spoke to Millennials worldwide, ‘climate change and protecting their environment’ is their top concern.

But it goes beyond engagement with your Millennial colleagues. A sustainable workplace has been shown to improve staff well-being and productivity. A Hays Recruitment blog post from late 2019 used the example of a Cornell University study that found natural light in the office, rather than overreliance on artificial lighting, leads to an 84 percent drop in symptoms of eye strain, headaches and blurred vision. Implementing a sustainability program and team alone isn’t enough; a current challenge that many existing programs experience revolves around engaging employees in a sustainability strategy. Two possible explanations for this disconnection are a lack of awareness among personnel and a lack of ownership by sustainability teams.

Awareness and ownership

Do you believe that sustainability is important for your company, but that it’s someone else’s problem?

This is a common issue many businesses face. While most talk the talk of sustainability – integrating environmental and societal concerns into their business models – very few walk the walk. A main reason employees don’t participate in a company’s sustainability program is that they don’t even know the program exists in the first place. How can a company get beyond this issue? The answer is ownership: companies that are winning the sustainability battle have created the conditions for their employees to own sustainability. In these companies, sustainability is not someone else’s problem. By transforming employees from bystanders into owners, and making sustainability part of their purpose, companies can fill a need and gain competitive advantage.

While more companies are recognising the importance of employee engagement, actual program ownership may be consolidated into a team that knows very little about sustainability and that may not personally want to invest as much time and effort on it relative to volunteering, recognition, well-being or other initiatives. Not all companies are resourced appropriately when that shift happens; the new team may not understand sustainability impact measurement or think communication is a substitute for engagement and activation.

For those looking to implement a sustainability program, or indeed trying to boost engagement for an existing one, authenticity must be a key consideration. It’s not just the smart workplaces that have cottoned on to this trend among global citizens to seek purpose and help the environment in their work. Recognising the appeal, plenty of companies are out there boasting sustainability for some good publicity and to improve their image, but it’s dangerous.

“Any organisation that overstates its green credentials,” warns Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays Recruitment in Australia and New Zealand, “leaves itself vulnerable to accusations of so-called greenwashing, which will have a huge impact on its employer brand and ability to attract top talent.” Deligiannis agrees staff empowerment in sustainability initiatives is a key method to ensure sustainability success overall, and engagement in the efforts from all ranks. “Many of the small actions in creating a culture of sustainability in the workplace come down to the behaviour of staff, so getting employee buy-in is crucial to the success of many eco-friendly schemes.”

Make it official

Having proper training and systems in place is thus critical to enabling everyone to make your sustainability a part of their job. When all employees and stakeholders use the sustainability lens to make decisions, a new business model takes root. Entrenching these feelings of ownership makes sustainability routine – something people just do. Having measurements of success and providing ongoing feedback on sustainability targets will demystify stakeholders’ contributions and gradually move them to own sustainability as indivisible from their jobs. Managers can use sustainability goals to evaluate their direct reports and compare employees, departments, divisions and business units.

I have visited buildings, factories and other workplaces that have large scorecards displaying their progress on greenhouse gases, water and waste, relative to other factories, which leads to conversations and becomes the basis of motivation, pride and a stronger sense of sustainability ownership.

Sustainability and employee engagement are intertwined and must go hand in hand. Three considerations to keep in mind are:

  • First and foremost, are you a responsible employer?

It is well documented that the way employers treat employees is a litmus test of sustainability for a company. In Golin surveys in each of the past six years, for example, the perception of whether or not a company ‘values and treats employees fairly well’ has been the number one factor in the ratings of a company’s corporate citizenship – more so than its philanthropy, community involvement, environmental performance and other corporate social responsibility (CSR) factors. So sustainability alone isn’t enough. Employees must be valued and treated properly.

  • Demonstrate your commitment to sustainability

The Reputation Institute finds that, on average, 75 to 80 percent of workers would “prefer to work for a company that is known for its social responsibility”. Deloitte’s findings echo the sentiment, as younger workers seek more than just good pay, showing “deeper loyalty to employers who boldly tackle the issues that resonate with them most, such as protecting the environment”. Create a portfolio of programs and never forget your reputation, which reflects your commitment to sustainability.

  • Engage employees directly in voluntary and on-the-job CSR-related activities

Polling firm GlobeScan reports that nine out of 10 employees worldwide are interested in participating in the CSR initiatives of their companies. Increasing numbers of firms are using CSR to enable employees to actually do ‘something more’ on their jobs and, in select cases, to produce value for both the business and society.

Hopefully, the power of what a proper sustainability program can be – a true win-win where reducing a carbon footprint meets financial saving meets a positive and powerful – has now been well-demonstrated, and these steps will help you secure that much sought after buy-in from your teammates.

Dr Kaushik Sridhar is a sustainability leader, non-executive director and university lecturer.

Image credit Hudson Hintze via Unsplash.

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