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Sustainable businesses: Employee engagement is key


Sustainable Businesses: Employee Engagement is Key

Modern office buildings have undergone a substantial evolution in the 20 years since the first certified green buildings emerged in the UK, having first spread to North America and then to the rest of the world. Locational elements, transport access, physical building characteristics and building management systems, alongside technical facilities management improvements, have all contributed to increased building quality and occupant wellbeing. However, an often overlooked key constituent to a sustainable building during its everyday life are its occupiers. They can play an important role in bringing personal sustainability initiatives to fruition, even if office premises have not been built explicitly to green certification standards.

In this article, we look at what it takes to engage employees on the issue of sustainability, and provide some examples of how major corporations are tackling this issue.

Engaged employees

Over recent years, a number of studies have illustrated how an engaged workforce can positively contribute to business success. Towers Watson's 2012 Global Workforce Survey1, for example, found that engaged employees lost six fewer days in productivity per year than disengaged employees (8 compared to 14). Earlier Gallup2 research revealed that high levels of engagement were clearly linked to increased productivity and profitability.

Employee engagement has traditionally been monitored for the purpose of helping companies to attract and retain skilled and productive employees. With the emergence of green buildings and sustainability imperatives, corporations are increasingly working to build successful employee sustainability engagement programs.

JLL has assisted companies across the globe in designing and rolling-out such programs. As with other corporate initiatives, there is a significant difference between well-intentioned individual efforts and strategic, holistic engagement programs.

Three-phase approach

A successful program is always based on clear strategies, goals and metrics, and involves three key phases: raising awareness, building engagement, and maintaining commitment.

1. Raising awareness - Inform and educate employees on key sustainability issues, and link them to the overall business strategy.

Aligning sustainability with core business strategy through engagement

In 2012, Grainger PLC, a leading British residential landlord and property manager, decided to increase engagement with its corporate responsibility (CR) strategy, in order to promote corporate responsibility (CR) as way of doing business within the company. To be credible, its CR initiatives needed to be fully aligned with the company's core objectives.

A dedicated half-day innovation workshop - the 'CR Innovation Day' - was arranged and attended by 10% of the business. The workshop focused on increasing resilience to future trends in the housing sector. External speakers shared lessons, gave their views, and challenged Grainger on how it was addressing key issues. Participants completed a SWOT analysis of Grainger's business strategy and the impact of CR on key housing trends over the next 5-10 years.

Following this, 100% of participants reported a desire to continue to contribute to the development of the company's CR strategy. Peter Couch, COO, said: "The CR Innovation Day made clear the passion for making CR a living part of the way we do things at Grainger. Involvement of the external speakers was an inspiration in itself. I am committed to encouraging my fellow executives and the Board as a whole to ensure we give CR the focus it needs."

The impact of 'CR Innovation Day' on employee understanding of CR was vital. From a committed few, responsibility for CR has spread throughout the organisation - from senior leaders to customer facing staff.

This is what building sustainable companies is all about - engaging staff and encouraging them to change their own organisations for the better.

2. Building engagement - Identify sustainability champions and motivate employees to connect with the program's vision and goals. Let employees know what difference their actions make and how they can influence changes in the future.

My Environment program - Ambassadors driving action around the globe

The Bank of America, with 270,000 employees, started the 'My Environment' program in August 2010 and it quickly grew to include over 12,000 active participants in 26 countries.

The program has evolved from focusing solely on educating employees about environmental topics, to an action-oriented global community dedicated to helping the company meet its environmental goals. The bank mobilises its employees to serve as stewards of the environment, both at work and at home.

It also includes a smaller number of 'ambassadors' who:

  • Host educational sessions for interested employees
  • Gather and share success stories
  • Participate in and/or facilitate volunteering opportunities
  • Help recruit new ambassadors
  • Provide feedback to the Global Environment Group, the bank's internal team working on strategic environmental initiatives

The program contributes to the company's future operational targets, based around reduction of energy, water and energy consumption, as well as GHG emissions. The company also plans to have 20% LEED certification within its corporate workplace portfolio.

In collaboration with the bank's corporate workplace teams, a group of Energy & Sustainability Champions from JLL's facilities management team helped connect corporate environmental initiatives with the bank's regular facility management activity.

3. Maintaining commitment - Scale up pilot projects through replicable processes for broad scale application, in order to develop long-term, widespread commitment. It is fundamental to put in place best practice and idea sharing tools. Recognition of changes and improvements is required.

Harnessing Employee Creativity for Sustainable Action

With the assistance of JLL, CA Technologies piloted 'Green Teams' in three offices - Paris, Sydney, and Framingham, Massachusetts. The program was introduced to leverage the ideas of employees, and to empower them to drive the company's sustainability strategy forward.

The pilot programs produced impressive results, most notably:

  • Reduction of paper consumption by 10.5% in Paris
  • Recycling or reuse of 85-90% of general office waste in Sydney
  • 120 unused electronic devices turned in as part of the Framingham office's 'Bring Out Your Dead' initiative.

Looking more closely, the Sydney office tackled three key areas highlighted in a pre-pilot survey of employees:

1. Recycling audit

  • 85-90% of office waste is recovered and sold for recycling or reuse.
  • Quality of paper recycling improved

2. Environmentally friendly transport

  • Use ecoLimo, a green transportation service, for taxi use
  • A 'Ride to Work Day'

3. 'Just turn it off'

  • Turn off PCs and other appliances when left for extended periods.

A post-pilot survey found increases in employees' understanding of the company's commitment to sustainability and adoption of Green Teams. It also increased employees' willingness to recommend CA Technologies as a great place to work. The success of the pilot programs has led to the creation of multiple Green Teams.

Lessons learned

It is not enough to simply create a program and hope it will work. It involves constant nurturing and promotion, with regular chances for employee involvement.

  • Use metrics to track progress - be sure to establish baseline data
  • Communicate effectively and visibly
  • Involve senior management and mobilise grassroots ideas
  • For global programs, remember local implications
  • Initiatives can establish context and increase success of existing company programs
  • Anticipate the space and staffing levels required
  • Consider employee rewards

Our years of experience advising real estate companies suggest that a successful sustainability program must include engagement - in the form of surveys, interviews, workshops, and working groups. The ideas and experiences of staff can then be integrated into a company's strategy. Importantly, the strategy must be easy to communicate. It is often said “you can't manage what you can't measure”; however, just as important is the truism that “if you can't communicate where you're going, you're not going to get there”. Engaging employees in developing your program will result in a sustainability strategy that is ambitious, meaningful, and relevant to both the marketplace and your organisation's business strategy.


Originally published : April 2013