Each year provides opportunities to reflect on significant events that occurred during the previous year as well as predict trends to watch in the year ahead. The case with sustainability is no different.
An often cited trend is the role employee engagement plays in helping organizations achieve sustainability goals. However, the interpretation of what employee engagement means can vary. And, the concept might be vague to many sustainability managers who have expertise in environmental sciences, manufacturing or supply chain operations, but may not have experience with large-scale employee based programs.
If employee engagement in sustainability is the emerging trend, then we need to better understand what companies must do to leverage its promise. This article will highlight some of these trends and suggest three essential steps to make it work in your organization.
Employee Engagement -- The Emerging Trend
In its "Annual Sustainability Executive Survey, 2012," Green Research cites employee engagement as one of two top sustainability trends that matter most. It finds, 1) Companies will increase their investment in employee engagement (88 percent), and 2) More focus will be on improving supply chain sustainability (73 percent).
It's no surprise the researchers made these conclusions stating, "Engaged employees make things happen." Employees know where the problems are and how to fix them. The focus for the company is on employees as internal change agents. How to get employees engaged is left open for discussion, a point we'll return to later.
Similarly, a survey by Brighter Planet cites the proliferation of employee engagement as one of its "Top 5" predictions. Besides helping achieve sustainability goals, enlisting people in sustainability efforts improves critical talent metrics such as recruiting, retention and promotion. This perspective extends the employee engagement equation one step further, recognizing the talent management benefits and culture change that can result when companies and employees operate with a sense of shared values and beliefs.
The National Environmental Education Foundation's (NEEF) recent report, "The Engaged Organization: Corporate Employee Environmental Education Survey and Case Study Findings," takes the argument even further, going beyond organizational boundaries, stressing that by engaging employees companies can spark innovation in everyday business, with spillover effects for employees at home and in their communities.
If we read these trends correctly, effective employee engagement strategies can improve internal operations, change corporate culture and contribute to broader ecosystem impacts. All sounds nice, right? It is.
The real question is, "Where to start?" And, "What exactly is employee engagement anyway?" Therein lies the challenge.
Wikipedia offers a useful definition of employee engagement -- an "engaged employee" is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests.
We tend to think of sustainability strategy as a series of projects -- around energy efficiency, waste reduction, resource optimization, product, process or service improvements, etc. -- and gloss over the fact that putting sustainability into practice requires people to do the work. If we are to further the organization's interests across these initiatives there clearly needs to be an overt effort to align people with sustainability planning and implementation strategy.
Next Page: Three Steps Going Forward