How to achieve Employee Engagement 2.0

Taking employee engagement to the next level and embedding sustainability into the business has been a common theme discussed in recent webinars, panels and industry conferences. However, while people recognize the challenge, the question of how to implement it remains. 

Enter Employee Engagement 2.0.

Employee engagement is one of those wonderfully amorphous concepts whose importance we appreciate before we fully understand what it means. We believe it can drive productivity, inspire and attract employees, increase profitability and make companies a better place to work, as well as better corporate citizens. Yet, while many companies pursue a variety of initiatives, few have reached a tipping point where sustainability gets embedded in corporate culture and daily business operations.

Sustainability gains have been incremental because few individuals beyond a group of dedicated true believers have the knowledge, incentive or tools to integrate sustainability into job functions and everyday decision-making in the organization.

Employee Engagement 1.0 versus 2.0

Currently, employee engagement usually focuses on voluntary efforts involving people of like-minded interest, with most activities remaining at the organization’s periphery. A common attitude expressed by mainstream managers and employees: “It’s not part of my day job.” Sustainability efforts get stymied, leaving many leaders frustrated and seeking new approaches. We refer to this current state of practice as Employee Engagement 1.0 with key characteristics summarized in the table below.

Employee Engagement 1.0 versus 2.0

Employee Engagement 2.0, as outlined in the table above, represents the future state of art of sustainability practice. To get there, companies must link sustainability to business strategy, operating processes and work functions, engage mid-management and make it relevant to one’s “day job.” In doing so, employees will be better able to see the possibilities that exist and take actions that contribute to the overall success of the organization, regardless of whether they are true believers.

The secret sauce

The secret is to implement sustainability as a series of business initiatives, linking it with functions such as product design, operations, supply chains and procurement, buildings and facilities, IT, logistics and customer-facing groups. Such alignment is a fundamental distinction between Employee Engagement 1.0 and 2.0.

There are two critical steps in this process: First, engage internal management stakeholders in a discussion about the intersection of sustainability with their specific line of business so you can jointly set goals, establish objectives and support programs related to that group; and second, provide the right training and know-how to employees within these groups so they are better able to contribute. This way, both functional leaders and departmental employees have more “ownership” of the results.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) provides an excellent example of such alignment. USPS defines five over-arching sustainability goals in waste reduction, energy conservation, fleet fuel reduction, recycling, water use and consumables spending. It also defines and implements a set of actions and behaviors that address how a variety of operating roles and functions feed into these goals, including plant and maintenance managers, fleet managers, operations, procurement, marketing personnel, postmasters and executives. Each group receives targeted learning and awareness building programs to support these activities. The Office of Sustainability team also tracks and monitors progress reporting more than $52 million in savings last year — a number that is still growing — and which it cites as largely due to employee-led initiatives.

The nice thing here is that the sustainability organization also can point to financial results and use it as justification for further program investment.

TD Bank also provides an excellent case study of internal stakeholder alignment and engagement. In seeking to balance employee engagement programs with corporate business and environmental objectives, the sustainability team engages internal stakeholders in cross-functional planning sessions to get buy-in and win-win participation on program goals, objectives, roles and responsibilities across the organization, linking sustainability engagement to indicators of business metrics, such as revenue generation, cost reduction, employee satisfaction and brand maintenance.
 
Importantly, the team brought an implementation framework to the discussion as well built on a model they call “The 4Hs of Environmental Engagement. Head. Heart. Hands. Horn.“ It’s a multistep engagement process to help guide how the bank develops and deploys resources over time. With more than 10,000 employees (40 percent of the employee population) having taken a green pledge in the initial "Head" stage, the company feels it has passed a tipping point in terms of internal awareness and engagement.

Both these organizations recognize that sustainability success requires change management approaches and have applied appropriate management disciplines to encourage learning and knowledge sharing, as well as collaboration with business leaders to promote new behaviors and recognize positive results.

Getting started

Companies can be large and complex, so the question of where to start may seem daunting at first. Again, there can be many starting points — in product groups, among procurement teams and suppliers, sales, marketing and other customer-facing roles, IT and office management, facilities and logistics and even among HR and talent leaders. But there are also simple and direct approaches, and even relatively small focused efforts can produce substantial results. Here are a couple more examples.

The sustainability group inside another large federal agency teamed with its CIO office to jointly sponsor technology-related initiatives to power down electronic systems. One program objective seeks to save $80 per year per employee just by shutting off systems at night and on weekends. With more than 20,000 employees, that represents $1.6 million in savings for just this one initiative. Additionally, with CIO backing, the team is getting increased visibility and support.

Another example is Landmark Group of Builders Ltd., a Canadian building company that provided a product team of 90 people with a short online learning program from the Sustainability in Practice role-based learning library. Using the interactive feedback elements in the programs, they captured 132 new ideas and suggestions in the first three months of training. The company continues to address a number of other functions as well, as it seeks to position itself as a leading green builder.

All of these programs have mid-management support and substantial business impact on the core of the organization. They also lower environmental impacts and engage thousands more employees who otherwise might not be engaged.

More than this, these companies are each building a story around innovation and culture change. Not only in capturing new ideas and collaborating among groups of employees, but also in the new internal business relationships that are strengthened and operating processes and practices that are improved — thus advancing long-term growth and culture change. 

After all, isn’t that the real end-game?

School of fish image by Khoroshunova Olga via Shutterstock.