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  • Writer's pictureBrian Snow

Employee Engagement: The Key to a Successful Sustainability Program

Communication and engagement are critical to an effective sustainability program. A building owner may be doing great things to help reduce the environmental impact of the property, but if no one knows about it— or helps contribute to the progress— the initiative loses impact.

While many organizations have started to embrace the concept of renewable energy credits, the issue with these programs (sometimes referred to as a renewable energy certificate or "greentag" program) is that they often don’t provide stakeholders with tangible examples of their benefits. This can lead to confusion from stakeholders regarding the

program’s benefits and therefore reduced commitment from employees.

It is important for building owners to select programs that their employees can identify with and thus rally behind. Organizations must promote these programs internally and provide personnel with a good understanding of the program’s impact on the environment. Only then will an organization generate enthusiasm and employee engagement – and ultimately achieve success.

The Importance of Communication

Greater engagement creates greater change, so it is critical for organizations to clearly communicate the benefits of their sustainability initiatives to employees. Many companies make sustainability program decisions within the C-level, and these programs are largely deployed with little communication to employees, so they often don’t understand program benefits. However, companies that drive sustainability into the DNA of their company culture achieve greater success.

Many companies fail to adequately communicate program benefits because the program is often too complex. For example, a growing number of organizations are tracking their carbon footprint to comply with institutional investor demands and doing so via carbon offsetting programs. A “carbon offset” is a compensation mechanism paid for greenhouse gases sequestered or reduced elsewhere. It has a market value and is measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent or CO²e. Within a carbon offsetting program, a company may purchase credits to reduce the environmental impact of their electricity consumption, but what does that really mean to employees? For the average employee, it is difficult to understand how purchasing certificates for renewable energy credits on an open market impacts the environment. This makes it hard for employees or other stakeholders to rally behind the program because they don’t really understand it.

Program Choice: Keep it Simple

In order to drive stakeholder engagement and change employee behavior, organizations should adopt sustainability programs whose benefits to the environment are transparent and easy to convey. A good example of such a program is committing to save the Earth’s rainforests. More than one acre of rainforest is lost every second and 31 million acres (48,000 square miles) are destroyed every year. Massive deforestation brings with it dire consequences such as pollution, soil erosion, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the loss of biodiversity – easy causes for employees to rally behind.

By deploying such a program, organizations can clearly convey the impact of their sustainability initiatives, making it easier for employees to embrace. For example, a company that commits to saving more than 1,000 square miles of rainforest could communicate its efforts to employees or building occupants through a map or image that highlights the amount of rainforest saved to date. This gives stakeholders something tangible to promote that clearly shows progress toward a greater goal.

Bringing Together Different Stakeholders

In addition to selecting a program that is easy for employees to identify with, companies should engage key stakeholders early on in the program development process to ensure a greater chance of success. This is particularly true for large organizations with operations throughout the world. By engaging senior personnel within each division, region or office early in the process, organizations are more likely to secure program buy-in from personnel. To do so, organizations should create a sustainability committee with a member from each region or division who has a voice in determining what the program will include. This will help to build momentum for the program within each department or region as it will be driven from within their own ranks rather than being “dictated” by head office.

Consider the sustainability programs that have been most widely embraced throughout the U.S. such as Energy Star and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED). These have been successful because individuals can easily comprehend how they contribute to a better environment. By rallying employees around a cause that is easy to understand and getting stakeholders involved early in the process, businesses can maximize the results of their sustainability efforts.

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