The secrets of measuring employee engagement

Companies throw around a lot of big numbers when talking about sustainability: tons of emissions reduced, millions of dollars saved, gallons upon gallons of water saved.

What get missed sometimes are the little actions that helped make those figures possible. By putting a sharper focus on tracking employee actions -- and their results -- companies have found new ways to engage with employees and uncover a host of benefits at work and at home.

"The real value of these [employee engagement] programs is not just the direct ROI and resource cost, but the transformational effect on the workforce and brand," said Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of Practically Green, during a GreenBiz webcast Tuesday.

Practically Green works with companies to develop and run sustainability engagement programs that incorporate social networking and gamification along with tracking employee actions.

Capturing what's meaningful

Stevens said that it traditionally hasn't been easy to determine what the important metrics to track are when looking at employee programs.

"For many years it's been a struggle and a challenge," she said. "I could sum it up as whatever we could find and put in Excel."

That includes simple tidbits such as eco fair attendance, volunteering hours and green newsletter signups. But that information gives little useable data.

Programs like the ones Practically Green runs, she said, now can capture a range of information such as employee pledges and what actions they've taken, and in turn provide hard numbers about employee impacts as well as return on investment.

Adding it up

Sony Electronics, one of the 25-plus companies that have worked with Practically Green, runs a program that tracks what environmental actions employees take in their daily routines and aggregates that to show their impact on the company's bottom line.

With about 500 participants, Sony has found that the 33,400 actions taken by those employees have saved about $25,000 and projects a savings of $84 per employee per year, said Eric Johnson, senior sustainability engineer at Sony Electronics.

Employees can move along four levels in the program -- seed, leaf, tree and forest -- depending on what actions they take, which include a range of steps such as switching to reusable cups, recycling, using less computer energy and saving fuel.

By tracking all those actions on the same platform, Sony now knows -- and can communicate -- that its employees have saved 101.78 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, more than 36,000 gallons of water and 2,000 gallons of fuel.

An important lesson Sony has learned, Johnson said, is to focus on getting people to participate at whatever level they feel comfortable with, and not to just shove a list of things they should do in front of them.

"A lot of this stuff can be overwhelming, especially for people who haven't been 'initiated' into sustainability," he said.

Beyond the basics

Building off programs that track employee impacts, some companies are looking into how their programs can help employees in their personal lives, affect employee satisfaction, improve environmental health at offices and company locations, and boost their brands.

Gaming and hotel operator Caesars Entertainment also works with Practically Green, and its program, CodeGreen Rewards Online, is operating at seven properties in three regions.

"It has educated our employees on the what, why and how to do this," said Lindsay Garcia, sustainability and public affairs manager at Caesars Entertainment.

A pilot of the program led to an average savings of $500 per employee at home. Those that participate join a social network for the program and can compare their scores, move up on leader boards and comment on others' activities.

Garcia said that Caesars is aiming for 20 percent of employees to get involved, their actions to reduce CO2 emissions 3 percent annually and to also increase scores on the company's annual employee opinion survey.

Participation rates and comments from the survey are key for Caesars, she said.

"It allows us to receive that live feedback and see how it fits in the greater picture of the overall employee experience," Garcia said.

As more companies move toward measuring those less-tangible ideas such as effect on their brands, Stevens expects programs and platforms to change as well, incorporating mobile technologies that make it easier for employees to track their actions and also receive prompts that remind them of pledges they've made or actions they can take.

Regardless of how the programs run, what's even more important is that they’re seen as more than a whim.

"I think we've seen the most success when people have seen the program as an ongoing initiative, not something that only happens for three weeks," Stevens said. "Keep it fresh, keep it evolving, keep it ongoing."

Image of hands together by Praisaeng via Shutterstock