Climate change and the employee: 5 things you can do to engage your people

Employees and Climate Change

Written by Jennifer Robinson.

It seems the wheels are in motion and the right noises are being made to effectively tackle climate change, or at least they seem to be. The UK is hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November, and in June the government signed off a new legally binding climate change target of “net zero” by 2050. You might feel you’re already doing your bit to combat climate change but if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking “what can I really do to make a tangible difference”.

Whether you do your bit or not, a company’s approach to sustainability for their consumer or employee, is becoming a defining factor to their success whether that be selling products or recruiting the next generation of talent. And it won’t be a surprise (especially given the recent political circus) that employees have more faith in their employer to do the right thing by our environment than they do the government and media.

But the workplace is a noisy stage with plenty of cases of “initiative-itis”; so how do companies make a positive environmental impact and bring their people along with them?

As well intentioned as workplace green champions can be, it’s still too easy to just see saving the planet as someone else’s job.

1.What are you really doing?

People are increasingly savvy to “greenwashing” aka misleading or giving a false version of your environmental efforts. In the UK, a 2019 survey by Kin&Co found 60 per cent of the public believe CEOs should be at the forefront of the fight against climate change, and 30 per cent said they would respect their CEO more if they led on this agenda.

In fact Millennials and Gen Z employees are looking for a company that reflects their own values, and environmental commitment is a large part of that. Some of the most successful companies and employers are now known as B-Corp companies; the likes of The Body Shop and The Guardian are turning to new frameworks and methodologies to ensure environmental performance is throughout everything they do.

Visa are another company taking ‘positive action’ on climate change but warn consistent use of environmental language is important for transparency. Net zero, climate positivity, carbon positivity, sustainability… it can get confusing so whatever terminology you use, stick to it and talk about how you’re achieving it. If you don’t already routinely update employees on progress against your outputs, like environmental impact, this is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate tangible impact of what your company and its people are achieving. The bonus is it helps them feel part of the bigger picture. And if your environmental impact isn’t beginning to be part of everything you do, it definitely should be.

Not everyone will be as passionate about climate change as you might expect – don’t assume everyone has the same views of the world. But you can make it easy for people to join in.

2. Make it feel real. Now

This is where the behavioural science kicks in because being able to engage people through powerful human stories is where they begin to care and the change in behaviour can begin. But Climate Outreach (a charity focussed on building acceptance of the need to tackle climate change) warn that climate change communications can be hindered by ‘psychological distance’. This means our planet dying just seems too distant and not our problem here and now. Their advice is to really understand what your audience loves, and how it could it be affected by climate change.

The catering and facilities management company, Sodexo, knew this all too well when having to meet huge targets on single-use plastics and food waste – “storytelling [had] to be at the absolute heart …we’ve switched our approach from simply talking about big numbers and targets to talking about the cause behind the campaign, often sharing the stories of what our own people have done.” This works because their employees could relate to the stories told by their colleagues – it seemed more achievable and real.

Catering to your audience is a crucial part of any employee engagement and in the case of climate change, some will thrive on stories of inter-team competitions (reduce your carbon calculators have been a popular choice in our experience) but others much prefer upskilling themselves in their own time on all things green. Take the time to find out what stories grab their attention.

3. Make it easy

We humans like problems that have a solution and even better if those solutions are quick and win big. We don’t ask for much right? Not everyone will be as passionate about climate change as you might expect – don’t assume everyone has the same views of the world. But you can make it easy for people to join in. Over the past few years, the amount of plastic bags we use has dropped dramatically, all since the introduction of the 10p charge for a bag. In behavioural science terms, this is loss aversion in practice. People simply don’t want to lose that 10p (5 cents), no matter how small it may be. Perhaps your canteen offers take away coffee. Try introducing a 10p charge for cups to encourage the use of reusable cups and drive down waste. Publish the results so people can see a difference being made and then look for other behavioural nudges that will help create a silent culture for change.

COVID-19 handed employers some easy environmental wins on a plate which shouldn’t be forgotten. One study found that 98% of a person’s carbon emissions incurred at work was a result of their commute and in March 2020 for many commuting to work became a thing of the past. As some offices start to reopen blended working has opened a whole new world of possibilities for employee engagement. But the quickest and easiest thing a company can do right now to reduce their carbon footprint, is cut business travel and encourage home working if suitable for their employees.

Online collaboration transcends the stifling hierarchies of organisations where, face to face, people may have been too shy to speak up.

4. Altogether now

The Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) tells us reducing environmental impact is no longer just about strategic decisions on energy management and procurement taken by a small number of people. As well intentioned as workplace green champions can be, and indeed their coordination may play a role, I think it’s still too easy to just see saving the planet as someone else’s job. Far better to broaden the conversation out to the whole organisation where the benefits are huge; engendering pride that they work for an organisation that is doing the right thing; improving engagement by enabling them to feel connected to an organisation and its purpose; and boosting innovation by creating space for new ideas on reducing carbon impact.

The bonus is we know that doesn’t even need getting everyone in the same room anymore. Online collaboration transcends the stifling hierarchies of organisations where, face to face, people may have been too shy to speak up. Discussion groups, polls or if they are brave enough blogs/vlogs are inspiring and rewarding ways for people to contribute to their employer’s green agenda.

5. What do your stakeholders think?

Certain companies are taking it one-step further by bringing their customers into the conversation about what they are doing to tackle climate change. The 2021 FT Investment in Brand awards nominees are great examples of how long-term thinking can pay off for them and the planet but also their customers. Similarly Selfridges wanted to speak in the same language to team members as the company does to customers. Why? So they could understand and contribute to the successful delivery of initiatives including environmental impact.

Some employees may be motivated by hearing inspiring stories of environmental efforts from colleagues but for others it might be cold hard facts that grab their attention. What if you are turning off customers because of your response to climate change? What is the impact on the business long-term? By bringing customers and stakeholders into those conversations you are creating an extension of your team which allows you to broaden your ideas to reduce carbon and therefore the difference you could genuinely make.

Talk to The Team about how you communicate with your employees during change.
Make contact with one of our team today >