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Game on: 7 approaches to hack employee engagement

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We've entered an age of employee engagement. Professional workers' expectations have shifted as society comes to terms with emerging millennial values and the techno-centric outlook of startups seeking to scale.

A strong company culture can keep employees productive, happy and loyal to a workplace. According to Gallup, engaged teams show less employee turnover and absenteeism, 17 percent higher productivity and 21 percent profitability.  

Corporate culture is a shared set of values communicated as goals among all levels of management. Sustainability is a powerful way to engage employees around specific, reachable and even mandatory goals.

From our various GreenBiz and VERGE events, each of the following companies below reveals how embedding environmental values within its culture led to a stronger, happier and more profitable organization.

The social network 'butterfly effect'

Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO of WeSpire, once set out to rid her home of disposable paper products. To her dismay, she calculated that completing her goal contributed to saving one-third of a tree.

"What if it's not just the actions we take and the impact they have?" she asked audiences at GreenBiz Forum 15. "What if, in fact, it matters because those actions influence others, and it's part of changing social norms and changing society as a whole? What if you could prove that you could catalyze a movement?"

Her company, WeSpire, harnesses the social "butterfly effect" of workplace networks to influence employees to take action on recycling, water conservation and even safety and cyber security.

"We have a petri dish of 30 companies [with 1 million employees] to see what drives engagement" to close the gap between employees wanting to be more sustainable and actually doing it.

Finding a North Star

When you're steering an organization with more than 220,000 employees and hiring tens of thousands more per year, it is essential to align employees to a common purpose.

"How do we get people engaged, motivated and aligned with something bigger?" asked Shanon Schuyler, chief purpose officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers at GreenBiz 16. Her job is to ask existential questions such as, "Why do companies exist? What is your North Star? What brings humanity to your company?"

CEOs are also focused on these questions, and so are the millennials coming into the workforce, according to a PwC executive survey. Beyond that, corporations have enormous resources to help solve society's problems and, in turn, elevate innovation, products and corporate image.

"Purpose" isn't just a new wrapping on corporate social responsibility, said Schuyler. It's an internal reboot of how companies do business.

Hacking the workforce

"The world is full of interesting problems to be solved," said Sara Neff, vice president of sustainability at Kilroy Realty Corporation.

That goes for the world of sustainability, which turns solutions for those problems into market opportunities. Following hacker principals inspired Neff, a computer scientist by education, to catalyze change within the "slow-moving" real estate investment industry.

"You should work on a problem that's interesting to you," Neff said. "For some people, it's data or technology. If you're interested, you're going to see it through to the end."

One principle is that no problem should be solved twice.

And the results? When Neff joined, Kilroy had no formal sustainability program. Within four years, it was named the top company by the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark — three years in a row.

"Once you've told that story, empowered people and rewarded them; that's how you do organizational change," she said.

Driving change

When the executive vice president of global manufacturing at a major auto company comes to a conference to discuss top-down sustainability, people pay attention.

Or is executive engagement a result of paying attention to people?

"Our customers care about more than just the cars," said GM's Jim DeLuca at GreenBiz Forum 2015. "They care about how we produce them, they care about what they're made of and they care about how we interface with the environment."

In DeLuca's purview, sustainability starts with executive buy-in and trickles down to more than 190,000 employees worldwide. Lessening environmental impact is written into GM's business plan and is distributed to every plant floor.

"We judge performance based on metrics like water usage and energy generation," he said, with every employee at every plant working to improve environmental performance. GM even rewards those who come up with sustainability and cost-saving ideas with up to $20,000.

"Sustainability impacts top-line growth, bottom-line results and risk," said DeLuca. Getting employees involved has helped the manufacturing business implement solutions such as reducing electricity use from lighting on factory floors and switching to recyclable bins instead of wooden pallets.

Bringing down the house

On the surface, this conversation with Microsoft's chief environmental and cities strategist, Rob Bernard, is about scaling sustainability solutions in cities.

But the real story starts with people, the lifeblood of the urban economies where companies are located — and with the people inside Microsoft who are laying the groundwork to address the environmental impacts of the cities and companies where they work and live.

And so Bernard's focus is on changing the culture at Microsoft so that every employee does their part: Every department has a carbon budget alongside their financial budget. For example, he had to account for the carbon impact of his flight from San Francisco to VERGE '14.

"It's really taken off because it's changed consciousness," he said. "One consciousness changes, behavior changes, and that's the key. You can't do all the work yourself as a sustainability officer. You have to get other people to change their consciousness, and then they'll do the work."

Once that internal work begins, the solutions filter out to the Microsoft campus and the city at large, like placing sensors on city buses to track driver efficiency.

Employees step up

Facing outwards, the sustainability project that Citigroup is most proud of is its dedication to green building.

"Citi has more LEED projects completed than any other financial institutions in the world," said Steve Avadek, director of sustainability for Citi Realty Services, at VERGE 16.

But, he said, "Sustainability has been so focused on impacts to the environment … and lost in the conversation are the people in the building  the occupants."

Citi helped gamify employee engagement by developing two data-driven programs: Drink Up, which assesses how many plastic water bottles are saved when people refill their water bottles; and Step Up, a competitive program that tracks the departments where people took the stairs instead of an elevator.

"We approach sustainability from a more holistic standpoint," he said.

The last mile

Competitionis usually a part of the workplace, but how about gamification?

Gabe Sichermann, CEO of Gamification Co., programs the best ideas from games, loyalty programs and behavioral economics to change employee behavior and solve sustainability problems.  

"Ultimately, it come down to the last mile — getting the consumer and employee to change their behavior," he said at VERGE 16. "Gamification gives us a roadmap for how to do that."

He advocates for using leveraging employee feedback, peer encouragement and, yes, even fun and play as powerful motivators.

"We've moved away from considering human factors in design," he said. If you can engage, inspire and delight people, they will feel more empowered to make changes at work and in the world.