Five Ways Sustainability Can Drive Employee Engagement

May 16, 2017 4:15 PM ET

Only 33 percent of US workers report being engaged in their jobs according to a report issued earlier this year by Gallup. A whopping 51 percent of U.S. employees say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings.

So, what drives engagement and what can organizations do to attract and retain the best talent?

Research consistently shows that employees are looking beyond money when they choose an employer and when they decide whether to invest discretionary effort in their job. Millennials, in particular, want to work for an organization whose values align with theirs, and who have a purpose for existing that goes beyond profitability alone. Harvard Business Review describes Millennials as “the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

Increasingly, organizations are realizing that sustainability offers an opportunity to connect with their people through a shared sense of purpose and commitment to doing good in the world. They are seeing the benefits of expanding beyond the core group of people who have sustainability in their job titles to involve employees from across the organization.

What are the best ways to engage employees with your sustainability mission? Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Frame (or reframe) your purpose in terms that inspire your people to join you in making a difference in the world. Does your organization have a purpose statement that tells an engaging, cohesive story about who you are and where you’re headed? One that your people can relate to and see themselves in?

For example, Unilever‘s purpose is to “make sustainable living commonplace.” Their position is that growth at the expense of people or the environment is both unacceptable and commercially unsustainable and that sustainable growth is the only acceptable model for their business.

  1. Educate your people about what sustainability means at your organization and how they can contribute. Highlight your sustainability policies from green purchasing standards to recycling practices to energy conservation guidelines to reducing food waste in organization newsletters and town hall meetings. If you work in a LEED-certified building, tell your employees what that means and why the certification is a point of pride for your organization. Quantify the effect of your policies and practices and share the impact the organization is having on sustainability annually.

Provide practical tips for how people can work more sustainably such as recycling, cutting back on printing hard copies, turning off lights and making a conscious decision to use less water. Consider incorporating sustainability into your leadership training programs so leaders can speak knowledgeably about the topic and reinforce sustainable mindsets and behaviors with their people. 

  1. Find the most passionate people and give them an opportunity to shape and lead the charge. Issue a call for people who would like to volunteer to help reinforce sustainability in the workplace. Then provide them with a deep dive into your sustainability policies and plans and ask them to help spread the word. Ask for their input and ideas on additional ways for the organization to work sustainably – and implement those you can. That can range from giving an employee permission to set up a table in the cafeteria to support a community garage sale to providing funding to implement a new idea organization-wide. By giving people who are passionate about sustainability a little more information and the chance to make a difference, you’ll create sustainability ambassadors who will support your efforts and bring others along on the sustainability journey.
  2. Inject a little friendly competition – with incentives. Tap into the motivation that competition brings to engage people with sustainability. Using ideas generated by your sustainability ambassadors, consider competitions such as which team can bike to work most often or which office can generate the greatest energy savings. Reward the winners with a healthy breakfast buffet, fun trophies presented at a town hall meeting or an extra day off.
  3. Share stories of your people who are making a difference. Keep a steady cadence of stories about your people who are engaged in sustainability in their professional and/or personal lives. Invite people to submit a short video, a picture with a caption or a tweet-length story about their own activities or that of a colleague. Provide some simple guidelines to give structure to the stories, such as asking people to answer simple questions like, “What did you do that is sustainable?”, “What motivated you?” and “What was the result?” 

Providing opportunities and encouragement for your people to get involved with sustainability can be a key tool in driving employee engagement, productivity and retention and making your organization more appealing to job-seekers. And with a motivated workforce, achieving your sustainability agenda and truly making a difference in your workplace, community and world will be easier and more satisfying.