4 reasons fewer employees are engaged in sustainability, and what to do about it

Last week, WeSpire released its sixth State of Employee Engagement report, our annual analysis of employee engagement programs. One of the more sobering statistics showed a decline in the number of companies that are engaging employees in sustainability strategy overall. Which, given the increasing quantity of data showing the positive business value of engaging corporate workforces on mission-critical initiatives, makes absolutely no rational business sense.

Employers are in a battle for top talent. Employees care immensely about positive impact programs. Companies increasingly need to explain and often convince customers, whether businesses or consumers, about the sustainability of their products and services. Employees can be, and often must be, that voice. Employee innovation and activation can drive down resource usage and create financial savings. 

So what's going on? Firms normally would invest in something that improves the business, not walk away. Given that the WeSpire team spends every day designing, running and measuring employee engagement programs, we have some hypotheses about the reason for the decline and some potential solutions for reversing that trend.

1. Companies have programs, but employees don’t know it

Our survey is somewhat unique in that it asks for employees’ perceptions about what programs exist. It doesn't ask human resources (HR) managers or other executives to name the programs they have. What this approach measures, therefore, is a combination of existence and awareness. 

For example, we recently ran a survey in a company with nearly 20,000 employees. This business was running a personal sustainability engagement program and had beat its initial participation and impact goals. Now it was developing the next phase. The survey asked whether the employee had participated in the program and if not, why not? A whopping 71 percent of employees who had not participated said they didn't even know the program existed.

This company, and many others, struggles to get its sustainability messages integrated into the corporate communications "architecture" at the same level as other engagement messages — such as safety, wellbeing or customer strategy. Employees notice, and infer importance, from these placements or the lack thereof.

What this company's employees say is that they determine whether they should participate in an initiative based on frequency of mentions in the screens in the lobbies or posters in the cafeteria or break rooms. They look to see how often the program is included in a presentation or mentioned in town halls or talked about by their supervisor at a shift meeting. They know whether a CEO or a senior leader (not in sustainability) has blogged or spoken about it, and whether the initiative was included regularly in email newsletters or posts on the intranet. It may not always feel this way, but employees are paying attention.

As a result, if a company is to do engagement well, it must see that engagement program as a critical initiative worth communicating about regularly in an array of channels.

Gathering this support takes time and requires constant reminders of the value of this engagement on business outcomes. It also takes convincing people that employees can handle more than one message. Employees are actually very good at compartmentalizing messages and often better than program owners at seeing the linkages between programs and their work. A good, integrated, consistent communication strategy for a sustainability engagement program is a major factors in whether a program succeeds.

2. Specialized, role-based engagement programs leave many behind

We've also seen a trend to move away from personal sustainability or broad work engagement to role-based programs that change how an employee travels, cleans, serves or uses compressed air. Role-based programs are super important and can have a major impact on energy, waste, water and fuel conservation, but most employees still value personal initiatives being included. When asked why they want their company to engage them in personal sustainability, one employee said it well. "The personal side made me more receptive and conscious. Now at work, the light goes off. It carries over."

A strong sustainability engagement program includes all three types of programs: role-based imperatives focused on those employees who have an ability to drive significant material impact; broader work-related initiatives to drive awareness, innovation and culture change; and personal activities that feel like the company cares about the employee at home and at work. 

3. Sustainability teams are losing 'ownership' for engagement

The good news is that more companies are recognizing the importance of employee engagement and creating new roles around "employee experience," "culture" or "engagement." The downside is that actual program ownership may be consolidated into a team that knows very little about sustainability and that may not personally want to invest as much time and effort on it relative to volunteering, recognition, well-being or other initiatives. 

Companies may not be resourced appropriately when that shift happens, the new team may not understand sustainability impact measurement or it may think communication is a substitute for engagement and activation (hint: it’s not). We've also heard more than one engagement professional approach these sorts of shifts as a zero-sum game and say, "I just need to know which program is most important, and I'll just focus on that."

It takes an extraordinarily persuasive and influential sustainability leader to move ownership for engagement to another team and to ensure that the company is still getting the right sustainability programs and communications to the right employees to drive needed results.

Our recommended approach is twofold. First, we believe that unifying the design and delivery of engagement efforts is incredibly beneficial. We know that when a company engages employees in sustainability and corporate social responsibility in a unified way that participation goes up for both programs.

When programs are unified, it's easier to compare the impact that each program is having on engagement scores, retention and employee performance. We can tell which employees are being "overloaded" with options and which aren't. We can reduce the quantity of emails and improve the relevance of those that do go out. Unification also reduces complexity for employees who just want a way to see everything available to them.

However, we strongly recommend that each engagement area — sustainability, well-being, diversity and inclusion, etc. — appoint or maintain an engagement manager who can ensure that the specific programming content is accurate and that the measurement strategy aligns with goals.

Program-specific engagement managers can partner with the broader engagement owner, as well as internal comms and HR to support the messaging and communications plans. They also can serve as community managers for ambassadors or green team members and all other employees participating in the sustainability initiatives.

We liken it to football — it's great to have someone be the quarterback for engagement initiatives overall, but you still need a team of specialized role players to score.

4. Too few are measuring and communicating the benefit

The reality is that many companies still don't have a way to measure and communicate the business benefit of sustainability engagement.

So the program starts out in pilot mode or at a grassroots level, and it gets some traction with the passionate 10 to 15 percent but never really scales. The program owner can't say, "Here's the impact that our program had on financial savings" or "Here's the impact that it had on engagement scores, retention and brand." So when belt-tightening happens or someone changes roles or a new CEO or owner comes in, it's hard to defend the time spent.

WeSpire recognized this early on and has always had an environmental impact/ROI calculator. However, led by several clients, we've learned how critical it is to understand the impact sustainability and other engagement programs are having on HR outcomes.

We started by linking program participation to employee engagement scores, knowing that a 5 percent improvement in engagement is linked to a 3 percent increase in revenue based on research from benefits specialist Aon-Hewitt. With the ability to access HR data, we are also starting to draw the connections to retention and performance.

So, what next?

We know many companies have engagement skeletons in the closet. We've experienced some programs that didn't work ourselves. But we also know that when structured well, sustainability engagement initiatives can drive enormous business value and return on investment.

As a result, sustainability executives should continue to champion the importance of having strong engagement programs and if ownership is consolidated, that they keep a team member responsible for expertise, community management and outcomes. We do hope that this decline proves to be a momentary blip given the broader challenges we all are committed to solving.