Engage your staff in environmental issues

Aug 24 2010 by Gareth Kane Print This Article

We waste a huge amount of energy at work. And I'm not talking about Facebook or sitting in pointless meetings. Despite decades of trying to cut carbon emissions, millions of lights, PCs and printers are left switched on, thermostats are turned up too high and equipment is poorly maintained.

Yet companies who invest in green technology such as teleconferencing suites to cut travel often find no-one ever uses them. Why? Because the vast majority of people see all of this stuff as someone else's problem.

So how do we get employees engaged and change their behaviour? Well, the art of staff engagement has developed way beyond the hectoring posters and switch-it-off stickers of yore. Here are seven steps to engage staff properly:

1. Show Leadership

You won't get staff engaged if you don't demonstrate your own commitment to greening the organisation. I've heard many stories of managing directors proclaiming a corporate commitment to the environment and turning up in a huge new company car the next day.

So if you're in charge, demonstrate personal commitment – buy a solar panel for your house or cycle to work – show you mean business. And be tough. 'Green' might be regarded as fluffy, but one MD I know sacked a fellow director because the latter didn't get 'green' and made it clear he didn't want to get it. That's leadership.

2. Provide Incentives

Some organisations have had success with direct financial incentives, for example, sharing fuel savings with economical fleet drivers. Most others find that individual benefits can cause more problems than solutions by generating rancour and encouraging people to try and play the system. Rewarding teams or groups can be less problematic, but can still have unintended consequences.

However incentives don't need to be financial –competitions are particularly successful at getting people engaged. I have seen many examples in companies ranging from small law firms up to multi-national beverage companies. They simply split their businesses into teams and set them against each other to see who can, say, cut carbon emissions the most.

3. Speak Their Language

People switch off when someone starts preaching 'green' to them. It is essential to choose your language carefully – talk cost savings to financial people, debate the expectations of potential new recruits with human resources and discuss energy efficiency opportunities with engineers.

If someone in the organisation is being obstructive, don't try a toe to toe argument – they usually generate more heat than light. It is much more effective to ask a question like "what will it do to our business if oil prices keep rising?" than to debate the whys and wherefores of peak oil theory.

4. Empowerment

If you really want staff engaged in green issues, get them involved in developing green solutions. This goes from simple requests for help to major project planning. You get better solutions, better staff buy in and enthusiasm if people have a personal stake in the success of any project and pride is as good a stake as any other.

Going further, you should delegate responsibility, authority and resources as much as possible to demonstrate your commitment and trust, and get everyone involved.

5. Provide Feedback

Studies have shown that simply providing people with information on energy use encourages them to be more efficient. While factories have provided data on operational statistics for decades, it is much less common in other sectors. There are many opportunities for feeding back – staff meetings, intranets, screen savers, foyer display screens, company newsletters.

Don't forget to mix up the traditional boring bar charts with more interesting communication methods like the human interest story - "One man's battle to cut carbon emissions" - or the "Did you know?"-style interesting fact.

6. Keep It Fresh

One of the classic staff engagement tricks is to creep around the office at night leaving a posh sweet on the keyboards of everyone who has switched off their PC properly. The next morning's conversation will be dominated by who got one, who didn't and why. It's a great idea, but it only works once before it loses its novelty. So don't keep doing the same thing over and over, innovate and keep it fresh.

7. Maintain Momentum

There is nothing worse for staff morale than a series of flash in the pan initiatives – each time much lauded, but soon dropped. Staff quickly get cynical and drift back to business as usual. Staff engagement has to be relentless – the cycle of engaging staff, implementing improvements, feeding back progress and innovating has to be a continuous virtuous circle.

If you do it right, the momentum will start to take on a life of its own – some companies report that they can barely keep up with the enthusiasm of their staff. And that's where you ideally want to be.


About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.