Making Employee Engagement Sustainable

Use these keys to make your company’s eco-mission successful.

“Engaged employees tend to be more motivated, more loyal and more inspired.”

It’s one thing to have a sustainability strategy, but to get employees to engage and champion it, companies need to listen to their concerns and appeal to their interests.

Every corporate strategy worth its salt has to have a simple, catchy title; sustainable growth is no exception. Unilever’s “Sustainable Living,” Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A” and IBM’s “Smarter Planet” offer a flavor of the current fare. Don’t mistake simple for simplistic, though. As with all effective communication, behind the brevity lies a set of complex, engaging ideas.

Take HP. The U.S. technology company has a sustainability strategy it calls “Living Progress,” the stated aim of which is to “create a better future for everyone through our actions and innovations.” But getting employees on board is the key to “making that vision a reality,” says Gabi Zedlmayer, chief progress officer at HP.

Aligning interests

Yet companies face a predicament. A catchy title might win the ear of their employees, but it won’t necessarily encourage them to act. For that to happen, companies need to appeal to employees’ hearts as much as their heads, Zedlmayer says: “Being able to meld HP’s long-term commitment to sustainability with the passion of our employees represents a winning formula.”

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Companies need to appeal to employees’ hearts as much as their heads

Before corporate strategists pick up their pens, they need to discover where it is that their employees’ passions lie. That means listening – through workshops, focus groups and other forms of structured dialogue. The next step should, in principle, be easy: provide the framework to let those passions loose.

Strong-arm tactics won’t work, warns Jay Coen Gilbert, founder of B Lab, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that certifies companies as sustainable: “Increasingly, telling people to care about sustainability – or what to do about it – is not as effective as asking them what they care about and what they think you should do about it together.”

That logic applies across the spectrum of sustainability issues, from building stronger communities or reducing carbon through to reducing workplace accidents or eliminating corruption.

Alexi Carli, global health and safety manager at UPS, stresses the importance of employee ownership, too: “If you want to nurture genuine employee engagement, it has to be less top-down and a lot more bottom up,” she says. “Management needs to provide support and an overall framework, as well as set expectations, but real employee creativity comes when you loosen the reins.”

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 If you want to nurture genuine employee engagement, it has to be less top-down and a lot more bottom up

UPS has clear procedures and strict targets for reducing injuries and auto accidents at work, and its 3,300 health and safety committees all have management and non-management employees as co-chairs. The remaining members, approximately four to 20 people, are all operational employees.

Such an approach not only gives a sense of employee ownership, but also provides the company with a ready network of peer-to-peer advocates.

“When you give employees the latitude to act and when they see that those actions have value and are making a difference, then that will make them want to do more,” says Carli, who notes that lost-time injury frequency has been reduced by nearly 15 percent since 2009.

Prompting passion

Volunteering provides another natural way of tapping into employees’ passions and exciting their interest in sustainability. Gib Bulloch, executive director of Accenture Development Partnerships, a social enterprise spinoff from consultancy firm Accenture, is a big fan.

Volunteering opportunities – particularly those that are long-term and skills-based – can act as a “living laboratory for social innovation,” he says.

To think out of the box, employees have to live out of the box, he reasons: “There are lots of examples of where a volunteering program can get people thinking out of the box and thinking about their skills, their job, their company’s products and services and how these might be able to solve a particular problem.”

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Volunteer opportunities can act as a “living laboratory for social innovation”

He gives the example of an industrial engineer at U.K. pharmaceuticals company GSK. The midlevel employee came up with an idea for providing low-cost health diagnostics during a volunteering stint in Kenya. “It’s no surprise that the idea came to him in the slums of Nairobi,” says Bulloch.

UPS’s Sustainability Ambassador program is another example. Created to harness the passion of employees who want to make a difference at work, it has enabled more than 4,500 employees around the world to participate in environmental and community volunteer activities and brainstorm ideas for how the company can be more sustainable.

Appealing to people’s competitive instinct is another powerful means of engaging employees. A case in point is the League of Intrapreneurs competition.

Launched last year by WWF, Standard Chartered Bank and GSK, among others, the initiative invites proposals for business-based solutions to critical sustainability challenges from entrepreneurially minded staff within corporates.

It garnered more than 230 submissions, of which four were singled out as winners. The organizers hope to set up an “innovation incubator” to develop the best of the rest.

RWE, a U.K.-based power firm, runs a similar competition internally. Employees from across the company are asked to submit ideas for cutting energy use. Winners of the Future Leaders receive funding and mentoring support to run pilots or small-scale projects in their workplace or their local community.

GE’s Treasure Hunts program similarly looks to engage employees on energy-efficiency issues. The initiative, which runs at more than 300 facilities, has led to more than $150 million in energy savings and the reduction of more than 250,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Dual benefits

Ultimately, the more employees engage with a company’s sustainability strategy, the more those plans come to life and the more sustainable that company becomes.

But the relationship isn’t just a one-way affair, notes Andy Savitz, author of Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line.

A growing number of employees today, especially the young, so-called millennial generation, are looking for meaning in their work, Savitz says. “Employees no longer expect to check their values in at the door,” he says.

The exciting prospect of becoming part of a company’s sustainable growth story can provide precisely that kind of pull. As Savitz notes, engaged employees tend to be more motivated, more loyal and more inspired: “And that’s what makes the world go round as far as corporations are concerned.” goldbrown2

This article originally appeared in the Guardian on July 7, 2014 and was republished with permission.


Oliver Balch is a British journalist and researcher specializing in business, travel and world affairs.

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