Lighting the match: A guide to employee engagement and behaviour change

In the second part of edie's 'guide-to' series for sustainability professionals, Matt Mace asks the experts about how to overcome major challenges and seize otherwise unobtainable opportunities that present themselves when igniting behaviour change throughout an organisation.

As we approach a crucial climate change ‘tipping point’ that could see entire landmasses eradicated if the issue isn’t tackled quickly and effectively, a strength-in-numbers approach has never been more important – as the Paris Agreements demonstrated so well.

But, while governments and businesses attempt to steer the world towards the 2C pathway, the “only as strong as the weakest link” proverb is in danger of slowing the low-carbon, resource-efficient transformation.

Once sustainability professionals have overcome that difficult first hurdle of securing boardroom buy-in for their CSR programmes, the next step can be tougher still: behaviour change. Companies looking to engage with employees on sustainability as a way of driving change are having to venture down more innovative behaviour change routes that appeal to individuals, rather than bleating tired rhetoric about polar bears and melting icecaps.

Some organisations are mastering this art of individual persuasion. Sainsbury’s uses internal competitions to motivate its workforce on sustainability, while environmental charity Hubbub is using larger-than-life solutions – from giant cigarettes and voting ashtrays to music-playing poles – as a way of drawing attention to the serious issue of littering.

But for many, sustainability programmes are still not reaping the rewards they should, due to ignorant, complacent or simply unaware staff members that leave windows open, fans rotating and equipment running when it shouldn’t be.

So – how can you make friends and influence people when it comes to driving green business? A host of expert speakers at the edie Live exhibition earlier this year offered up some of their own invaluable advice on preaching sustainability to the masses.

Universal change

As environment and sustainability manager at Aston University, Andrew Bryers has seen his job role expand in line with the University’s growth as a sustainability champion within the educational sphere.

Bryers has implemented a range of common behaviour change techniques – including departmental energy use leagues and campus-wide awareness weeks – to change the concept of sustainability from an eye-rolling agenda to an engaging ethos at the heart of both staff and students at the University.

Alongside Aston’s vice-chancellor Julia King, Bryers has seen Aston’s emissions slashed by 28% against a 2006 baseline as the University strives to hit a 53% reduction goal by 2020. While incremental targets have been adjusted over the past few years as the campus deals with teething problems associated with behaviour change, Bryers is fully confident that the 2020 goal will be reached, thanks to the continued interest from those attending the University.

“We’ve introduced a variety of concepts, including green leaders that question the normality of their departments to see what energy efficiency measures could be improved,” Bryers explains. “It gave us a route of conversation to introduce solutions. It’s now at the stage where people are communicating with us and asking how to become a green leader or how to go up in terms of league rankings. It’s now about growing the initiative and generating both savings and interest.”

For Bryers, getting sustainability into the centre of campus ambitions came about through an effective awareness campaign that not only informed individuals about how they could create energy savings, but also persuaded them to carry-out these changes through a real-time gamification model that pitted departments against each other.

While the use of energy or waste-related league tables and rewards aren’t alien concepts for sustainability professionals looking to change behaviours, companies often fail to bridge the gap between compliance and actual engagement by isolating these initiatives.

For Aston University, a more holistic approach was taken, singling out individuals as ‘Green Champions’, while also relaying information on what departments and ‘Champions’ can change to enhance reductions. ‘Go Green’ workbooks are then used as a two-way street that siphons information from Bryers and his team to university departments while also offering those departments the chance to produce evidence and ideas on how energy efficiency initiatives could be improved.

“We have staff asking questions, but there are also things they aren’t aware of – so it’s a case of continuing to educate them and dispel any myths that are out there,” Bryers added.

Behaviour diagnostics

Motivation has proved a successful avenue for Aston University to promote sustainability. But while a campus-wide effort to change behaviours has created a broad sustainability platform that people can choose to engage with, honing in on individuals to find what truly makes them ‘tick’ can provide dramatic changes for companies that have the time and resources.

So says Matthew Lawrie, behaviour change trainer and psychologist at the Energy Institute (EI). Lawrie has worked to develop EI’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ toolkit, which offers management a “route to the top” of the cultural ladder by engaging individuals to facilitate a shift in behaviour.

The toolkit, and subsequent sessions that arise from it, sees Lawrie engage with small groups for around three hours per session in an attempt to “diagnose” reasons that are creating friction between an individual’s actions and the company’s desired response to a particular initiative.

By engaging with individuals in an enabling environment that is actively imploring them to change their behaviour, Lawrie believes that there is a greater chance to embed the right mentality to engage those individuals whose actions don’t align with a sustainability initiative, such as leaving windows open.

“If people think about issues and come up with solutions themselves, they are more likely to become more engaged to implementing solution,” Lawrie says. “They’re more likely to succeed, but management needs to provide the right environment for this to flourish, people need to be aware of what resources are available.

“You need to identify the behaviour that you’re targeting, and measure the criteria for success in what you’re trying to change. You can measure a change in energy use which is a potential way to measure behaviour change.”

For Lawrie, this shift can only begin to transpire once the company’s cultural ideologies have been set out so that staff can understand what is expected of them during work hours. With more workers beginning to associate themselves to a company’s sustainability agenda and targets, Lawrie feels that “embedding the right culture” will change how a company has to operate and thus how the staff is expected to carry out these operations.

While Aston University’s work is an example of how to incentivise and motivate this change, Lawrie recommends connecting with the individual on a personal level to find out what would motivate them to change. Performance-based targets are a commonly used technique, but Lawrie warns that incentivising through finances and wages will backfire in the long-term.

“Don’t use money to incentivise people – it works in the short term but people will get attached to and expect it,” Lawrie says. “When the financial rewards are taken away all hell breaks loose. There are other ways to incentivise to promote behaviour; recognition, celebration, but the short answer is don’t use money.”

Mental barriers

There are some unique cases where money has been used as a voluntary leverage for sustainability – SME engineering firm Dunlop Systems, for example, encouraged board members to put their pensions into a new facility construction project that promoted energy efficiency measures.

But with this option unlikely to be viable to larger companies, external NGOs such as Global Action Plan (GAP) are commonly brought in to highlight and tackle behaviour discrepancies.

Independent charity GAP has just finished a new behaviour change drive that saw it launch the Catalyst initiative, aimed at creating a network of sustainability champions that can motivate one another to mobilise the workforce. For GAP’s senior partner Chris Large, the Catalyst initiative provides the framework to mobilise the UK’s 30 million-strong workforce to implement sustainable practices established by their respective organisations. While the framework is in place, Large still recommends that companies learn what barriers are stopping staff members from engaging with sustainability.

“People will always give you excuses of why they can’t or won’t do something,” Large says. “There are heaps of excuses and reasons which we need to respond to. To every individual, these barriers are real, we may think they’re odd or inconsequential, but they need to be navigated. Polar Bears and climate change won’t address these barriers.”

Large suggests that individual barriers usually fall into certain categories, with issues surrounding an ability to change, the motivation to do so and a lack of knowledge on how to begin this change listed as common reasons. But Large also notes that people are actually inclined to change and start operating in ways that don’t necessarily fit their best interests. He pointed to cyclists braving the freezing weather in Copenhagen as an example of how people will eventually comply with a new action or movement.

GAP has already proven this at Barts Health NHS Trust. By partnering together, Barts and GAP were able to promote energy efficiency by switching off lights in exchange for natural light, while also promoting “silent” periods to enhance patient experience. The results have seen Barts Health trim £400,000 off of its energy bills each year as part of Operation TLC. These results all started by appealing to individuals at the Centre.

“You need to get specific on the action,” Large adds. “In hospitals, we installed light meters to see if people were changing their actions towards light switches. You need to think about who you are trying to get to act. Is it everyone in the organisation or just 5% for a very specific role, and can they all win.

“You want everyone to act and if systems are in place where not everyone has a chance of winning, then it won’t promote a change.”

So, you’ve managed to secure crucial boardroom buy-in, and now you’ve overcome the challenge of behaviour change. In part three of this ‘guide-to’ series, edie will provide an insight into the third step to sustainability success: consumer engagement. Part 3 will be published next week.



Matt Mace

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