As more and more companies become focused on embedding sustainability principles into their organizations, they are increasingly recognizing the key role that their employees play in making these efforts a success.
Managers are realizing that taking sustainability seriously goes beyond merely producing a sustainability report; it is about getting the whole company to move together and this requires the active engagement of employees.
Take any company in the world today and you are likely to find at least one employee who has an interest and passion in sustainability. Sometimes these employees sit back and wait for the company to tell them what they can do to apply that interest to the company. Other times they take things into their own hands and start making things happen.
The online auction website eBay’s green team, which was started by just a handful of interested employees now has over 2,400 employee members from across the company working on everything from eliminating Styrofoam cups in break rooms to encouraging eBay to build large solar installations at their San Jose, California headquarters. Companies around the world increasingly have green teams and are supporting the initiatives and ideas coming out of these teams.
Participation in ‘green teams’ provides opportunities for employees to be more engaged in their workplace, and engaged employees usually make for better employees.
Research from the global management consulting firm Hay Group shows that highly engaged employees can improve business performance by up to 30% and that fully engaged employees are 2.5 times more likely to exceed performance expectations than their ‘disengaged’ colleagues.
But green teams are only the tip of the iceberg. By limiting the way employees are engaged in sustainability issues to just green teams, companies are missing out on a whole range of opportunities that can be beneficial to both the employees and especially the business. Companies looking into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and what the business case is for them are starting to realize that their greatest source of knowledge and ability to move forward is by listening to and engaging their employees in their sustainability strategy.
IBM is one of several companies that has gone further, by actually inviting its employees to help determine the company’s overall strategy. IBM’s Big Green Innovations program includes environmental initiatives focused on advancing water management, alternative energy and carbon management. The idea came out of the IBM innovation jam in 2006, which involved 150,000 employees blogging for two to three days and resulted in 30-40,000 new ideas. These were narrowed down to ten, which the company decided to adopt strategically, one of which was the Big Green Innovations program.
Several other companies are increasingly engaging employees in identifying opportunities to bring sustainability into their operations, to identify problem areas and come up with solutions.
Although many companies believe that employee engagement in sustainability is important, they are also still unclear about how to do it successfully. Many employees when asked about what their company is doing in sustainability and how they are engaging them in these activities say they don’t know, and they are not alone.
A recent survey by Brighter Planet in February of 2010 said that about 86% of respondents said they were not being engaged by their employers on sustainability, even though the same amount – 86% – said that their organization promotes employee sustainability. Only 14% of the employees said they were aware of their companies having an employee sustainability engagement policy at all.
The problem often comes down to companies not adequately recognizing what motivates and engages their employees in the first place.
A survey conducted by Ashridge Business School looked at what motivates individuals to work versus what approaches organizations are adopting to ensure employees are engaged and motivated in the workplace. They found that what managers want and what organizations think managers want are completely different.
Performance-related pay/incentive schemes ranked first on what organizations felt were important, while they ranked only seventh on what managers actually felt motivated by. Having the authority to run their own show ranked fourth for managers, but only 15th for organizations.
As the survey rightly puts it, “Organizations do not motivate people, it’s people in organizations that motivate people.” Because people are motivated by a wide range of factors, companies need to provide a range of different ways for employees to get engaged.
Unilever’s Vitality Programme, which launched in 2005 focuses on encouraging healthier lifestyles, by promoting the wellbeing of employees in terms of fitness of body, heart, mind and spirit. Intel Corporation’s Involved Program enables employees to volunteer thousands of hours in the communities where they work, while Accenture allows employees to work on non-profit consulting projects in developing countries through the Accenture Development Partnership.
Organizations are full of employees that are interested, ready and willing to be engaged in sustainability. Many companies believe they can’t afford engagement, but maybe they should be asking themselves if they can really afford not to engage their employees in sustainability?
Giselle Weybrecht is the author of The Sustainable MBA: The Manager’s Guide to Green Business.