Sustainability practices bond employees (and attendees) to a company and drive innovation.
Ask David Oakey, a carpet designer at Interface Flor, for his inspiration for 2003’s über-popular (and, now, oft knocked off) "Entropy" design, and there’s a good chance you’ll get a "from the forest" in response. He wouldn’t be wrong—but that’s not the whole story.
Oakey and several other designers took a field trip into the nearby wild after the company decided to push for more sustainable and green practices in all areas of the business. The designers were told: "You guys need to be using less material. You need to be designing carpets basically that aren’t as ‘fluffy,’ for lack of a better word," said Erin Meezan, vice president of sustainability for Atlanta, Georgia-based Interface. Oakey started thinking about biomimicry, the concept of looking to nature for design solutions, and off to the forest the designers went to observe, "How nature makes a floor."
They found that nature’s carpet was not uniform or cookie cutter. Chaos ruled the forest floor. And it was beautiful. And it worked.
"It was sort of like the direct opposite of how we designed carpet tiles in a manufacturing environment," Meezan said. "We used to design those tiles, each one to be exactly the same. When actually in nature, everything is slightly random. So, it inspired us to make a new design for carpet tiles where everything was slightly random and it wasn’t exactly the same. It eliminated the concept of off-quality."
And the design took off in the U.S. market and beyond.
"It just sort of became a new kind of way to do carpet in our industry," Meezan said.
The sustainability-driven project also helped bond the designers to the company.
"It allowed this new creativity to come into the business, even for the people on the factory floor," Meezan said. "For the more technically focused folks in your company, it allows them new glasses, new frameworks, new ways to sort of think about something that really drives innovative thinking."
Interface has countless stories about the ways sustainability initiatives have led to greater employee engagement. There’s the warehouse manager in Australia who realized excess carpet that’d been left sitting around could go to help people whose homes had been ruined by flooding. And the guy who works on a packing line who was so inspired by Interface’s sustainability efforts that he decided to make similar changes on his farm (goodbye, lawn mower. Hello, sheep!).
The sustainability efforts aren’t just helping the company develop a closed loop to reduce waste. They’re developing a closed loop that helps maintain talent.
So, are sustainability practices worth green lighting as tools for engagement at your company and meetings?
"There’s a lot of potential as to what an organization can do if they tap into this," said Patti Prairie, CEO of Brighter Planet, which conducted surveys on sustainability and employee engagement in 2009 and 2011. (The company was born out of an environmental economics class project at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.)
In the latest survey, they found that more companies are working to engage employees on sustainability issues—more than half "promote sustainability frequently or very frequently," but the effectiveness of the engagement efforts have dropped by eight percent over the last two years, with just 17 percent rated "very effective."
Is there a lesson here? Step forward with care and make sure the initiative matches your company culture and your employees’ interests and talents, or they could feel forced. Sustainability and green initiatives [must be] part of the values and operating principles of the company, not some add-on in HR where, "Oh, this is a nice thing for us to do," according to Mindy Gewirtz, Ph.D., founder and president of Collaborative Networks, a leadership and organizational strategy firm.
"I think a lot of companies…[undertake] green initiatives, which become a chore and [for employees] it’s an extra task instead of becoming sort of an authentic part of the culture that connects, and it feels more like a marketing thing rather than part of who the company really is."
Forced green could lead to employees shrugging the actions off as just another passing fancy by upper management.
"If you really just try to fit it into this small box and basically be like, ‘All we want to do is talk about green,’ inevitably you’re going to appeal to a relatively narrow subset of the population," said Andrew Bryson, vice president of consulting at Saatchi & Saatchi S. "If the goal is to really engage your employees…[you] need to make sure that there are multiple touch points for people to get involved and that they can find a way to get involved that makes sense for them."
But, before we take a sustainability-related employee engagement deep dive, let’s explore the reasons an engaged workforce is such a powerful force to have on your side (and why a disengaged workforce is such an Oh, my. We really must do something about that situation). According to Gallup Inc., "actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line, while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to the bottom line to be more than US$300 billion in lost productivity alone."
Where’s your jaw hanging now?
"There’s a strong psychological need for employees to be part of something bigger," said Fraser Marlow, vice president of marketing and research for BlessingWhite, an employee engagement and leadership development consulting firm with offices in the U.S., England and Australia.
With recession pressures waning, employees are starting to eyeball outside opportunities again "suggesting that [this year] will be a challenging year for retention (and a hot market for firms looking to attract top talent)," according to BlessingWhite’s 2011 Employee Engagement Report.
Back to sustainability…Saatchi & Saatchi S, which has a tagline of "activating companies for good," encourages clients to take a holistic approach to sustainability.
"For us, when you talk about sustainability, you’re talking about health and wellness issues, you’re talking about diversity issues, you’re talking about sort of everything that a company is doing in the social good space," Bryson said.
That broadening of the sustainability umbrella offers a lot of leeway for getting employees involved with initiatives that up engagement.
And, once you set an initiative in action, the employees must get to see buy-in—not just lip service—from top brass.
"If you are going to have these initiatives, the senior leaders need to articulate them," Marlow said. "They fall over if the leaders can’t connect the initiative back to the business. If it’s standalone at the end of the year, that’s the first thing that gets dropped when times get hard. [The initiative] needs to become a non negotiable."
Also, employees need to get feedback on how their actions contribute to the greater good.
"We know from the research that if people understand their own specific performance makes a difference in the company and affects the company’s bottom line, they tend to be more engaged," Gewirtz said.
Leave employees out of the equation and you risk alienation and disengagement.
Jim Walker, director of sustainability for the University of Texas-Austin, echoes this need for people’s desire to understand how they each individually contribute to the whole.
"Every individual I involve with wants to do better on recycling, gets energy and water conservation, understands that there is a big picture involved and is wrestling with the, ‘What does my individual action mean on the big scale?’ and all that," Walker said. "The trick is, once you get people into large groups, how do you sustain both the interest in doing stuff as well as the creativity in trying to problem solve?
"You have to have managers and directors and upper management who not only are good listeners to their frontline staff, but understand what they’re saying." The way to help managers buy in: "You have to allow people to have their own starting point."
Generation Next If you’re trying to keep younger talent in your cubicles, green initiatives are gold. Companies that actively work sustainability initiatives into their business processes help land and retain top young talent, as demonstrated by numerous surveys and the day-to-day at companies such as Brighter Planet, the sustainability technology firm that conducted the surveys mentioned above.
Aside from Prairie, who worked at traditional companies including IBM and American Express before joining Brighter Planet, the entire staff is in its 20s and most have been at the company for four years or more.
"Throughout [the company’s life], our focus has been a clean energy future. So, everything that we do is associated with that," Prairie said. "It dawned on me that it’s not cool, necessarily, for Millennials to stay with one company but they’re pumped and they feel good about what they’re doing."
The company’s sustainability practices include virtual offices to cut down on travel, actively working to take trips that are as emissions-friendly as possible, and more.
No matter the age, connection to the initiatives is key.
"I think what’s been really interesting for us is that sustainability has been the way to get our people excited, emotional, connected to the company in a way that they probably weren’t and couldn’t have been until we started focusing on sustainability," Interface’s Meezan said. "The way it comes out when you talk to people on the factory floor is they no longer say, ‘I’m here to make carpet,’ they say things like, ‘I’m working for the planet.’" One+
Gen Y’s Hot for Green
92% are "more likely to work for an environmentally friendly company" and 80% want a job that "allows them to have a positive impact on the environment"
56% wouldn’t work for a company with a "negative environmental reputation or record"
Willing to give up 6.2% of their salary to work for a green company
Sources: MonsterTRAK.com, Cone Inc. and Adecco USA’s 2008 Workplace Insight Survey
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