Innovating with technology and behavioural change to leverage the employee engagement opportunity

Driving behaviour change can be tough, and yet getting employees personally engaged in a company’s day-to-day sustainability efforts is crucial to making meaningful progress by fostering a genuinely sustainable culture. The benefits of succeeding in this area are extensive. It is widely recognised that besides the financial benefits that sustainable practices provide, employee productivity, retention, happiness and overall satisfaction go up. 

More than ever before, people yearn for purpose in their working life, something that goes far beyond earning an income. Companies that are able to resolve the tension people feel between their personal values and their role at work benefit from a more engaged and productive workforce. Successfully engaging employees in sustainability therefore represents a huge opportunity to drive job satisfaction as well as improve the delivery and success of a sustainability strategy.

Unilever – somewhat unsurprisingly given its credentials – is a fantastic example of a business that has successfully managed to engage its people on sustainability. A recent study revealed that over half of all new employees entering from university cite Unilever’s ethical and sustainability policies as the primary reason for wanting to join, and 170,000 of Unilever’s employees feel their role at work enables them to contribute to delivering the sustainability agenda. In a world where so many people don’t feel happy or engaged in their work, a workforce like Unilever’s, where almost 80% of people feel engaged, is a real competitive advantage.

The question then, is how can a company successfully engage its employees in sustainability?

One thing is clear, people can’t be forced to change behaviours, they change their own behaviours and our role as sustainability professionals is to create an enabling environment which provides the opportunities for people to be inspired to contribute. And to do so, we are increasingly seeing those striving to engage employees on sustainability are venturing down innovative behavioural change routes, for example with the use of nudges. I find this approach fascinating.

Meet the Nudges

Nudges offer a subliminal alternative to rules. Rather than forcing employees to be more environmentally or socially responsible, this approach entails subtle cues that work by tapping into the subconscious, moving sustainability into the mainstream without removing freedom of choice. Nudges often work without people realising, and whilst not interfering with their daily lives, they can be very effective in driving positive change.

An interesting example of the power of behavioural change and nudges is the programme developed by RBS which is facilitated by a mobile phone application. The app, which is installed on the mobile phones of employees, aims to motivate them to practice sustainable behaviours at work and at home, such as energy saving, recycling, and sustainable travel. Participating employees are encouraged to form teams, compete and earn points for simple actions like switching off electrical equipment and reporting leaks. During its pilot phase, the programme resulted in 1,200 employees logging over 2,500 activities to reduce the bank’s environmental impact. In addition, over 500,000 disposable cups were saved from landfill, and forecast energy savings from the programme stand at an impressive £3m.

Unilever has also applied similar approaches to its business, placing behaviour change at the very centre of its Sustainable Living Plan. From an understanding that successful change comes from people, their habits and motivations, they have developed a practical tool – the Five Levers for Change: make it understood, make it easy, make it desirable, make it rewarding, and make it a habit. These, if applied consistently, increase the likelihood of a campaign having a lasting impact.

As an award-winning CR and sustainability consultancy, we know how effective these theories can be when applied specifically to the challenge of employee engagement, and we are active proponents of using technology such as apps to break down internal barriers. Much can be achieved through fostering a culture of participation and friendly competition – not only helping you to achieve your sustainability objectives, but also leading to a happier and more productive workforce.

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