Know how to help your staff to ‘go green’

Climate change is generally accepted as the largest single issue facing humankind, and according to recent government statistics, the impact of the non-domestic sector is significantly higher than that of residential users.

Despite the current economic climate, this issue still warrants attention. But relying solely on corporate sustainability policies to deliver the desired changes, without considering how accompanying working practices and employee behaviours need to change, is unlikely to succeed. Targets and aspirations need to be supported by procedures to help employees attain such goals. In essence, the individual-level behaviours of employees need to change.

How can you make a difference?

First, you need to reconsider what is meant by ‘going green’, to approach it more as an organisational change problem, and less of a facilities or technology problem. Technology alone is unlikely to be the answer; indeed, numerous large-scale IT programmes, such as the National Programme for Information Technology in the NHS, have failed to deliver promised solutions to systemic problems. It is clear that IT can help achieve efficiencies, but to have wide-scale success, it must be embedded in working practices, processes and cultures.

What can you do in practice?

Give people feedback. The single most effective technique in getting households to go green has been to provide detailed feedback on usage. You can replicate this by finding ways to present similar information within the workplace. Such information should be tailored to the individual workers. It should be high quality, specific, and continuous (enabling individuals to associate actions with immediate consequences and costs).

Expert’s view: Gene Johnson, head of EMEA learning and development, Dell

What are the biggest challenges?

Changing how people think and behave is extremely difficult, especially if they don’t believe in, or value, environmental issues. Setting goals will only work if it makes sense within the current organisational context. What people won’t buy is a sudden change that they don’t believe to be authentic. The employer needs to be clear about its own values around green issues: what do we believe in and why? They should also be aligned with the firm’s vision and mission statements. Executive commitment can also be a challenge, but staff will look for it as proof of support. Small, symbolic actions such as having a recycling box by a desk and reinforcing others’ behaviour can be very powerful messages.

What should you avoid?

  • Imposing an action plan without getting staff involvement, as it will typically end in failure.
  • Over-reacting in some areas that can be perceived as silly by staff. For example, banning disposable cups may be OK, but purchasing mugs for all may be seen as unnecessarily expensive.
  • Starting off eagerly and then losing momentum.

Top tips

  • Start a green team. Involve staff and have them come up with ideas and an action plan.
  • Create expectations around green behaviours from the start, during orientation.
  • Assess yourself and keep track of your progress over time.
  • Compare yourself to other firms and create a sense of competition that drives you to improve in ranking.
Set some goals. Setting a hard, but achievable, goal can help encourage individuals and teams to work harder to change their ways, giving them something to work towards. However, if this is to work, you must equip them with knowledge about how to change what they are doing.

Make it competitive. Social pressure is a powerful tool to drive changes in behaviour. A simple way to harness this is to compare the ‘green’ performance of different groups, adding a competitive element – for instance, using combinations of group target setting and comparative feedback.

Adapt workers’ roles and responsibilities. You can encourage workers to take this issue seriously and focus their efforts effectively by adapting job roles and creating new responsibilities in line with high-level corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies. Crucially, this should be backed up by measuring the desired behaviours – for example, through performance appraisals.

Engage with and empower your people. Involve workers throughout the design and implementation of green initiatives and empower them to take the lead on green issues. Capitalise on their first-hand knowledge of how to reduce waste and inefficiencies – they know best where waste occurs day-to-day.

Make it convenient. It is well established that making green behaviours as attractive and convenient as possible boosts success.

Make it part of the culture. Making new working practices – even those initially resented by workers – part of the norm can improve compliance with procedures. This is evident in health and safety, where behaviours become part of the role and not an ‘optional extra’, often through repeated informational and enforcement programmes.

Rose Challenger and Matthew Davis, Centre for Socio-Technical Systems Design, Leeds University Business School

If you only do 5 things

  1. Involve your staff from the start.
  2. Set realistic, achievable targets.
  3. Make it part of the process.
  4. Let people know how they are doing.
  5. Add a fun, competitive element.

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