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7 ways to build a sustainable work culture

Hint: Start small, show momentum and make sure to pack an effective punch.

Most people believe in the need to act sustainably to protect our environment, and most business leaders appreciate both the broader benefits and the direct positive impact of sustainable behavior on their bottom line. As individuals, we understand that small actions add up to collective impact; yet as human beings, we are surprisingly averse to change: We struggle to adapt our behaviors and to adopt new habits, even when we want to. Knowing and wanting isn't always enough.  

A breakout session of BusinessGreen's recent 10th anniversary Leaders Summit was dedicated to employee engagement. As people around the room shared their experiences, a pattern quickly emerged: most were lone rangers or members of small tribes nobly flying the flag of sustainability, yet ultimately struggling to convince their colleagues to make substantial and meaningful changes.  

Having launched our own sustainability initiative at Hill+Knowlton Strategies last year, I knew all too well the difficulty of getting a program off the ground. But thanks to a combination of innovative platform Do Nation, behavior change nudges from our SMARTER behavioral insights team, and of course excellent internal communications, our efforts really paid off. The program was rewarded not only by engagement levels that far surpassed expectations, but also the accolade of BusinessGreen's 2017 Employee Engagement Award.

Engaging employees in sustainability has wide-reaching benefits, far beyond our individual companies. So rather than sit back and feel pleased with our efforts, I wanted to share our learnings in the hope that it might help others start similar programs:

1. Make it fun

Very simply, people are motivated to do things when they are fun. We are innately drawn to activities that are enjoyable or entertaining, something too often forgotten in the workplace. So, find ways to build fun into your sustainability initiatives. By making the act of recycling, reusing and reducing inherently amusing, we turn "should dos" into "want tos." Could you create your own version of the "Ballot Bin" anti-litter campaign?

2. Keep it simple

Our brains have limited cognitive capacity; there's only so much information we can process. Because of this, on a subconscious level, we tend to avoid anything that feels like a hassle. We default to simplicity. Therefore, we can create positive behavior change by making the sustainable option the easy option and the wasteful behaviors more difficult. Make your recycling bins easy to use with a foot pedal but your landfill bins awkward to use with a heavy lid; keep the mugs out within easy reach and store the paper cups in the bottom cupboard; have paper recycling bins at every workstation.

3. Start small

To create long-lasting new habits amongst your employees, start with small asks: things that are easy to do and too small to say no to, such as choosing ceramic over paper cups, and putting tea bags in the compost bin. Small goals are the key to major transformations; they break down resistance to change and, in the process of completing them, we begin to transform the way we see ourselves — internalizing the identity of being a "recycler," for example. This identity then spills over into other areas of our life, and a multiplier effect takes seed.

4. Show momentum

Psychologically, a sense of momentum and progress is very powerful: we are much more likely to change our behavior when we feel as if we're in the middle of a journey, rather than at the start of one. Show employees the level of progress already made towards their sustainability targets in order to boost engagement and drive further change. Retailers do this very effectively by giving you a loyalty card with two stamps already filled in, making you feel like you're en route to the end goal so you keep putting in the effort.

5. Make the effects real

To pack an emotional punch, use imagery and analogy instead of statistics. Our brains weren't built to contemplate big numbers, so avoid numerical descriptives such as the "billions of plastic bottles" people used in a year. Instead, translate figures into powerful imagery that people can relate to, like "Did you know there is an island the size of Germany made of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean?"

6. Show people they're part of a crowd

We're social animals and are much more likely to do something if we think others are also doing it. Share data about how many other people already have made changes around the business, and the rest of the workforce is likely to follow suit.

7. Remind people of their values

Often individuals will agree with the importance of conserving the environment and adopting sustainable behaviors, but they don't actually act on those values. By gently reminding people of their own values at the point of decision making (such as at bins and coffee stations), we can bridge the "intention-action" gap and nudge people out of mindless bad habits and into mindful good ones.  

These tips on nudging sustainable behaviors are based on what we know from behavioral science, as well as our own employee engagement experience at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Sitting at the confluence of psychology, economics and neuroscience, behavioral science often can decipher why people act in seemingly irrational ways and reveal opportunities to create small, incisive interventions that will nudge positive behaviors and habits throughout your organization. 

Too often, employee engagement campaigns focus on telling people what to do, comforted by a position of moral high ground but resulting in a limited effect. Instead, consider human behavior first and find ways of encouraging sustainable actions that are easy to do, fun and have a better impact on people's individual lives. In doing so, you'll have much greater success and be able to embed sustainability into your corporate culture for the long-term.

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