CEF Spotlight

A Company’s Best Asset: Three Ways to Create an Engaging Employee Sustainability Program


By Gretchen Digby, Director of Global Sustainability Programs at Ingersoll Rand’s Center for Energy Efficiency & Sustainability

It’s no secret that when it comes to your business, people are your biggest asset. And in the ever-changing marketplace, retaining engaged employees can be your organization’s best competitive advantage. But with so many organizations focused on employee engagement, why do only 32 percent of U.S. employees say they are enthusiastic about and committed to their work, and worldwide only 13 percent of employees say they are engaged?

One of the reasons for the lack of engagement has to do with purpose. Successful company leaders know that providing purpose is a key to creating an engaged and productive workforce. Take yourself for example — do you feel better knowing your life has a larger purpose that goes beyond showing up to work and picking up a paycheck? This is where sustainability can play an important role in making employees feel engaged and fulfilled. Companies that focus on sustainability practices can shed light on the larger impacts of a certain job and give employees a better sense of purpose and contribution to a greater good beyond themselves.

More than checking a box on a to-do list, a sustainability program must continually adapt to meet employee needs. What’s the secret to a successful sustainability program that actually engages your employees? Listen to your employees. Ask what drives them to be involved in a sustainability program and then actually incorporate that feedback into your company’s plan. Remember, for employee engagement initiatives to be successful, they must be tailored to the unique needs and motivations of each individual. So, when gathering feedback, it helps to include employees from a variety of your company’s business lines and levels, to make sure you’re gaining a complete and accurate scope of your organization.

Ultimately, people aren’t engaged by programs; they’re engaged by people. With this in mind, before your business undertakes a lengthy sustainability planning process or survey-deployment project designed to boost company morale, try these three methods for unlocking employee engagement in your sustainability program:

1. Create structure (but not too much)

Filling out mountains of paperwork on the dos and don’ts of sustainability and sitting through canned PowerPoint presentations are surefire ways to discourage employee enthusiasm for any program. Employee engagement programs need to have set goals and procedures in place, but ones that are malleable and reflective of the ever-changing workplace needs. Offer your employees the chance to voice their opinions and thoughts on what works and what doesn’t, and provide follow-through. It’s important to show employees that their feedback enabled change at the company (e.g. based on employees’ input, Ingersoll Rand installed a new water fountain in the kitchen to help cut down on water bottle use) otherwise they will stop being thoughtful and stop sharing their ideas.

One area of caution: if you have a global program, create a structure relevant to your target audience in different locations and cultures. For example, I helped activate Green Teams across my company to engage employees in sustainability efforts and build awareness of our internal sustainability practices. However, I quickly learned that localizing sustainability efforts across regions was crucial to the success of our program — planting trees was much more important to our employees in China than to their counterparts in North Carolina because they placed a greater emphasis on improving air quality due to pollution from heavy manufacturing.

And finally, don’t set unrealistic goals for your employees. If you set goals that are difficult to understand or near impossible to attain, the program will become negative and quickly de-motivate employees. Remember, no goal is too small.

2. Recognize actions taken

Employees need to know their individual actions matter. Regularly and publicly thanking them for their efforts and engagement in company initiatives demonstrates your awareness of their hard work, and encourages them to ramp up their efforts. Make the time to celebrate accomplishments and milestones, rewarding and recognizing employees in ways that are meaningful to them. Everyone loves to hear “thank you,” but adding a prize or reward can also help increase employee participation.

When I was activating Green Teams across my company, we created a program where participants could compete for silver, gold, and platinum certification based on points earned related to the sustainability activities happening at different manufacturing, distribution, sales and service, and office locations. For instance, if a site increased employee engagement in sustainability activities by 10 percent over a three month period, it was awarded silver certification. If a site had a 15 percent increase over the same timeframe, it was awarded gold certification, and a 25 percent increase was awarded platinum. This encouraged friendly competition among the different regional sites, and also helped generate excitement around the program.

3. Drive awareness of the business relevance

While it’s important to structure your sustainability program to reward goal completion, the most effective engagement programs target specific goals (whether individual or team based) that have an obvious impact on the company’s bottom line. As a good first step, be able to clearly articulate to your employees the business case for your sustainability program and how each individual plays a key role in making it successful. Connect employees to existing company metrics by showing them how to quantify their personal and team impacts. For example, if a Green Team implements a recycling awareness program during a quarter where no other waste reduction projects were implemented, compare the total waste to landfill data quarter over quarter and credit the recycling program for the reduction. This data can help quantify the impact of employee awareness about recycling and resulting behavior change.

Once an individual understands how his or her role contributes to the sustainability program (e.g. turn off the lights when you leave your office for the day) and the overall well-being of the company (e.g. electricity costs in the building were down five percent after one quarter), they are more likely to be productive, passionate and innovative contributors — and the organization will reap the business benefits of a higher-performing employee.

A culture to meet future market needs

At the heart of all successful employee engagement sustainability initiatives is communication; this includes listening and incorporating feedback. Good leaders should take time to find out what motivates their team and apply this knowledge to create opportunities for development, reinforce the value of an employee’s contribution and show how each individual contributes to the company’s ROI. At the end of the day, striving for high levels of employees engaged in sustainability efforts makes smart business sense. A company’s best asset is an engaged workforce and a workforce that’s engaged around sustainability is poised to meet future market needs.

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