Ideally, the long-term goal is for sustainability to become deeply imbedded in operations so it is seen as a part of everyone’s day-to-day responsibilities.

Integrating sustainability engagement leverages financial resources and employee time.

What do we mean by integrating sustainability engagement?  When a company begins implementing new sustainability related programming, it is often seen as something new and perhaps standalone; yet one more thing that employees are expected to do in their already busy day. Ideally, the long-term goal is for sustainability to become deeply imbedded in operations so it is seen as a part of everyone’s day-to-day responsibilities. This requires the underpinning of sustainability values in overall decision-making in regards to internal operations as well as services to or products for clients.

A common disconnect surrounding this scenario that directly affects employee motivation is that many employees, at all levels, do not understand the business value of more sustainable operations. The impacts of sustainability on the bottom line are well documented; the financial and operational benefits from sustainability are increased by operational efficiency, productivity, employee retention and recruitment, in addition to, customer and investor preference.  This blog post will highlight some key considerations to embedding sustainability engagement within an organization.

Supportive Leadership

Embedding sustainability effectively into an organization’s operations requires strong corporate commitment in addition to dedicated support and cooperation of regional and local management. What are some ways organizations demonstrate this type of support and commitment?

CEO Ray Anderson led Interface, a global leader in carpet design and production, on it's Mission Zero, to eliminate all waste from production by 2020.

CEO Ray Anderson led Interface, a global leader in carpet design and production, on it’s Mission Zero, to eliminate all waste from production by 2020.

Creating Culture of Sustainability and Innovation – People are more likely to think and behave in a more sustainable manner if it is encouraged throughout the organization, versus asking employees to change one particular behavior with the sentiment behind the request not being reflected in other areas. Fostering a workplace culture of sustainability demonstrates a commitment to integrating more sustainable behaviors; we then create space and attitudes for more sustainably conscious decisions, actions as well as new and innovative ideas.

Leadership Support – Leaders and managers at all levels within an organization hold key positions of influence; this is particularly important to consider as implementing and embedding operational sustainability requires a unique blend of top-down, bottom-up support and cooperation. Obviously, executive leadership plays a critical role in the process; a key support function from this level is for leadership to communicate and demonstrate to regional and local management that sustainability is a priority for the organization and therefore for local leaders as well. This will aid program implementation tremendously, since a significant barrier to the top-down, bottom-up engagement system can be local leadership, as they are the authority of what is permitted to happen locally.

Practical Framework

Let’s be honest, embedding organizational sustainability in not an easy or fast process. How could organizations make the process more focused, manageable and notably smoother? Create a relevant and practical implementation framework that provides clear direction to harness employee efforts towards common goals, while leveraging efforts and resources. Sound reasonable?

At Engage International, we promote engagement frameworks that we like to call “strategically flexible”.  The key to successful sustainability initiatives is rooted in local context and relevance; for example, what would work at an office in Seattle would not necessarily work in an office in Alaska or a more extreme example, New Delhi.  So how could you create a corporate engagement program where everyone is working towards a common goal, but efforts are still relevant to all locations?  Create a framework that is based on common organizational goals, yet provides some autonomy and ownership to local offices to carry out initiatives that are relevant and most impactful for their particular location and context.

A relevant strategy is directly linked to organizational vision and goals. It creates the framework for employees to make a clear correlation between their daily actions and organizational impacts. Could your employees read your organization’s sustainability report and clearly understand how they personally are contributing?  Below is video to illustrate the impact of Interface’s (a carpet manufacturer) “I am mission Zero” employee initiative.

What makes a strategy effective? Based on employee driven planning, the sustainability strategy maps out clear, focused and collaborative plans of sustainability priorities, methods of implementation, communications, education and engagement, tracking and monitoring as well as evaluations and reporting. No matter what shape your strategy takes on, basically we need to constantly ask ourselves, how can we leverage efforts? How could organizational sustainability be implemented in the spirit of participation, collaboration and partnerships?

More on this topic is discussed in further detail in a previous post, Creating a Strategy for Engaging Employees in Sustainability.

Effective Coordination

With strategy in hand, how does an organization go about effectively coordinating implementation and ongoing management? What kind of coordination systems could act as the structure and bond that holds it all together? Below are a few implementation systems to consider.

Office Rating Systems – Office rating systems are a concrete way to ensure all offices are on the same page in terms of where there are now and where they need to be to achieve programming goals. Based on programming goals, rating criteria are mapped out for offices; for example, what does it take to be a “1 star” (starter office) office versus a “5 star” (champion office)?  As an example, below is a video explaining Harvard’s Green Office Program rating system.

Corporate Coordination Platform – Since the foundation of sustainability is rooted in local context, a coordination platform is required for creating relevance, while meaningfully supporting and empowering local efforts. Building a network of regional “key multipliers” into the implementation structure provides regional contacts, communication as well as tracking and support avenues for local office teams or committees. This is a regional representative who regularly communicates, follows up with and supports local offices.

Sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPI) – Having discussed the items above, how does an organization create accountability at the operations level to promote sustainability? Often employees feel overloaded with daily tasks along with other corporate programs and responsibilities that require attention from local offices. This often translates into situations where if employees do not have a personal interest in sustainability or they feel it is not relevant to their job they generally do not support it; some even actively oppose it.  In an ideal scenario, employees at every level would have sustainability related Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to achieve in terms of their work performance, making sustainability an integrative part of their job responsibilities.

Participation, Collaboration & Partnerships

So how do we as employee engagement professionals approach the process of embedding sustainability into an organization? I often compare employee engagement programs to the glue that holds the overall sustainability programming together. How do we shape this “glue” to aid the process of embedding sustainability?

Again it is key when creating your engagement strategy and programming to focus on the spirit of participation, collaboration and partnerships. Imagine that all internal silos are torn down and that you are completely free to build meaningful partnerships that promote collaborative implementation; shape a strong interdisciplinary group of sustainability integration teammates.  This could be in the form of an inter-departmental sustainability advisory team or even informal networks that you an reach out to when any initiatives may overlap with the efforts of another department or service area.

Let’s start a discussion!

Share your experiences with us!  We would love to hear them!  What has worked?  What lessons have you learned?  What about this blog post was most useful for you?  If you have any questions or comments use the comments section below.  If you would like to get in touch with me, please feel free to email at Wendy Firlotte .

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