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Community solar, urban trees and the digitization of employee engagement

Heightened awareness about environmental and social issues over the past year has made these initiatives more timely than ever.

Urban tree cover

Side-by-side images of two Detroit neighborhoods illustrates the disparity in tree cover. Credit: Google Maps.

A perennial concern of corporate sustainability professionals — how to nurture employee buy-in for the organization’s programs and strategy — easily could have been sidelined during the COVID-19 pandemic, as companies everywhere shifted to accommodate remote workforces. 

But heightened awareness about environmental and social issues over the past year has made these initiatives more timely than ever. Leading companies, including tech firms Microsoft and Akamai, are expanding their focus into new realms — ones that explore the intersection of sustainability and human health, or that allow employees to take action to reduce their own impact at home and in the communities where they live.

"Many employees want to live out their personal values at work and are asking for these programs," said Richard Keiser, CEO and founder of community solar company Common Energy, during the GreenBiz webcast last week about engaging employees in sustainability.

Over the past several years, Common Energy has developed and refined a Clean Energy Benefits program, through which a company’s employees can enroll in community solar projects as a way of addressing their personal carbon footprint — at no cost to either it or its employees. 

As of early April, employees at companies including Akamai, Corning, LinkedIn, Microsoft and VMware had enrolled in projects across four states including Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, and representing a cumulative clean power capacity of 50 megawatts. In aggregate, Common Energy has 70 projects across nine states, according to the press release about the initiative. Aside from those already mentioned, the company has a presence in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.

During the webcast, Keiser said community solar, while still only available in a limited number of states, offers a way for companies to help their employees procure renewable electricity directly even if they live in apartments or homes where residential installations aren’t possible. Generally, the program is offered locally. For example, Microsoft is participating in Illinois, where it supports a data center, and Akamai is offering this benefit to employees who live near its Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters. 

Community solar project, Common Energy

One of Common Energy community solar projects.

Common Energy

Centering employee engagement programs on regional or local concerns of employees is a strategy that both Akamai and Microsoft are nurturing alongside digital initiatives that help convey information about corporate-level priorities.

"We are constantly looking for ways to involve our employees in the story, but in a way that is authentic to Akamai and in a way that seems actionable for them," said Courtney Hadden, senior program manager for corporate sustainability at Akamai, who also participated in last week’s webcast.

Earlier this year, Akamai’s sustainability organization teamed up with its wellness team, corporate foundation and employee resource groups to create a platform, managed with WeSpire software, that is used to share information and manage engagement. 

This system was used during Earth Month to help manage the company’s "30 Acts for 30 Days" campaign, which challenged employees to complete individual actions aimed at building environmental awareness such as upcycling personal items, measuring their tire pressure or setting up a composting system. The company also featured resources, such as creative cooking videos meant to reduce food waste while encouraging healthy meal alternatives, Hadden said. 

Akamai awarded points for actions completed during the month, and allowed offices and employees to tag and challenge each other through the online platform to encourage higher levels of participation. Each employee that reached a certain level of participating was entered in a drawing that enabled them to win a donation to a charity. 

Last year, the company also added a sustainability-themed component to its "Akamai Wizards" corporate ideation program for the first time. From among the 5,000-plus entries, the second-place prize was awarded for a calculator that helps Akamai customers measure Akamai’s contribution to their carbon emissions reductions.

"Our goal is to make them feel engaged with sustainability, not make them feel guilty that they aren’t," Hadden said.

Holly Beale, senior program manager for community environmental sustainability at Microsoft, who also participated in the webcast, estimated that about 5,000 of the software company’s employees are actively engaged with locally organized, volunteer-led community activities. Each group focuses on projects that are meaningful locally, she said. 

For example, the group in Ireland recently prioritized the distribution of wildflower seeds to cultivate awareness of biodiversity. In Chicago, Microsoft is donating money to a nonprofit partner, Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, for every employee that enrolls in the community solar program.

"They have their own targets or metrics, whatever is most relevant for them in their office," Beale said, answering a webcast attendee question about how Microsoft measures the impact of its employee engagement efforts. The company also surveys local communities for feedback, she said.

Like Akamai, Microsoft ran an EcoChallenge during April through a digital platform that allows employees to earn points for taking certain actions. The individual participant and three teams with the highest number of points "won" a donation to a high-profile environmental NGO. As of the webcast Tuesday, more than 87,000 actions had been logged by more than 6,000 participants. On a year-round basis, employees are encouraged to share ideas and potential projects through an "ActionBox" that is part of the company’s online employee resources. "Employees are really at the center of this hub" of potential ESG initiatives, Beale suggested.

One activity that appears to be particularly intriguing and meaningful is urban tree planting, according to Beale. To support those efforts, Microsoft has organized access to a number of resources. 

One highlighted by Beale is the Tree Equity Score tool from American Forests, which calculates information for U.S. cities with more than 50,000 residents using a combination of sociological and economic data including local income and raise. Among the questions it answers: Does this neighborhood have the right number of trees for health and environmental reasons? Microsoft partners with City Forest Credits to organize related planting projects and to certify the environmental and social impact, Beale said.

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