5 ways to get employees engaged with sustainability (+ 1 reason you should)

Panel of sustainability managers at the SXSW Eco conference discusses the upside of getting employees involved with corporate sustainability and why it is important not to mandate causes.

AUSTIN, Texas – There is one really good reason businesses should make their employees a central part of their sustainability strategy: they will bring the best ideas for meaningful action.

What’s more, engaged employees are more productive, passionate employees, and sustainability offers them a concrete cause during an uncertain economic climate, according to a panel of sustainability managers speaking about the topic during the inaugural SXSW Eco conference.

“These people are our biggest assets as a company,” said Erin Meezan, vice president of sustainability for Interface, the carpet manufacturing company famous for making sustainability a central tenet of its operating philosophy.

She added: “There is a collective sense of shared purpose that is good for morale and retention.”

Tim Mohin, director of corporate responsibility for technology company Advanced Micro Devices, pointed to Gallup research that suggests companies where employees have rallied around a central corporate cause are creating four times the earnings per share as companies that don’t have the same cultural touchstone. “Engaged employees add value to the business,” he said. Too touchy-feely for you? Consider that the same Gallup research shows that companies with disengaged employees are more likely to lose value.

The panel offered their insight into what works -- and what doesn’t -- when it comes to getting employees involved. Here are five common themes:

1) Make it a game
Time and again, early smart grid research suggests the best way to get homeowners to change energy consumption habits it to let them see what their neighbors are doing. Employee sustainability is no different, said Andrew Bryson, vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi S, which has developed programs for companies including Walmart.

Setting up friendly competitions between divisions, business units, regional offices is a strategy that has worked well for many companies, the panel noted.

Lee Matecko, global vice president of store development for Whole Foods Market, pointed to his company’s Green Trek Challenge. The program encourages Whole Foods employees to share their progress about “personal sustainability” -- everything from wellness to green transportation usage. During the competition segment that just closed, about 27,000 of the Whole Foods’ roughly 62,000 employees were involved, he said.

Another example: Walmart played to the competitive natures of employees when it wanted to increase the sales of green products such as energy-efficient lights and water filters. The store-to-store rallying cry was extremely effective in boosting revenue, Bryson said.

One word of caution from Jim Walker, director of sustainability for the University of Texas at Austin: Watch what happens when the competition is over to make sure the behavior is sustainable. “You need to have eyes wide open as to whether you are actually changing the lifestyle,” Walker said.

2) Let employees define the cause
Want to see a sustainability program fail? Mandate something that was developed without the input of people in the field.

Interface’s Meezan offers the example of an Interface wellness program that fell flat on its face because it became a cause celebre of the human resources department, one developed without any employee input. When it comes to sustainability, it should be the job of managers to provide a framework and then let employees fill in the blanks. She also points out that the right “cause” for a factory in Georgia might not be appropriate in another region of the world. “What we have learned is that the role of senior management should be to set the direction but allow the creativity to come from the employee,” Meezan said.

3) Don’t forget middle managers
It is not enough for company leadership to support sustainability ideas, if an employee’s direct manager squelches ideas outright without giving them a chance. Their role is to remind employees about what is practical and then help employees prioritize engagement.

“Middle management needs to know where the buy-in starts and they need to have a sense of ownership about this, too. That is a critical piece that often gets left out,” Bryson said.

4) Don’t make it all about money
While there is definite evidence to support the idea that sustainability missions should be built into employee compensation structures --  Intel offers a great positive example -- this shouldn’t be the primary motivator. “It is one thing to support your employees with their altruistic pursuits,” Mohin said. “It is another thing when you are paying them off to do good things. That is not sustainable.”

5) Celebrate the wins
There are two reasons to do this. The first points back to the gamification idea and the idea that people like to be recognized. The second reason is that sustainability managers should encourage as much face-to-face sharing of best practices as they can. Many of the ideas around sustainability are new, and be celebrating the wins you might be able to avoid repeating mistakes. “We see amazing things coming up from our employees, and when we see them, we support them,” Meezan said.

More coverage of SXSW Eco:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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