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Sustainable mobility drives the newest employee perk

One of Genentech's electric commuter buses.

Genentech

This article originally appeared in the State of Green Business 2021. You can download the entire report here.

San Francisco Bay Area biotech giant Genentech is a world leader in making medicines for diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis; it’s even trialing one of its medicines for helping treat COVID-19. It’s safe to say that the company, a division of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, isn’t officially in the transportation business.

But over the past few years, the company has aggressively built out an electric commuter shuttle program for its employees, as well as developed other sustainable mobility offerings such as easy access to carpooling, transit services and ferry lines. The goal: Move the more than 10,000 employees that normally commute to its South San Francisco campus (pre-pandemic) with the lowest carbon footprint possible, and offer its traveling salesforce across the country access to EVs.

Why? One big reason — rising in importance at companies across the globe — is employee engagement. "It matters to our employees," said Andy Jefferson, Genentech’s director of transportation, at the VERGE 20 conference in October.

Retaining the best talent is crucial to Genentech’s ability to stay ahead with biotech innovation. Enabling employees to make sustainable choices about their commutes and transportation is the latest perk it can offer to an elite workforce. And Genentech isn’t the only one.

Enabling employees to make sustainable choices about their commutes and transportation is the latest perk a company can offer to an elite workforce.

Companies around the world, from Sweden’s Inkga Group (the holding company for the IKEA retail chain) to Clif Bar (with operations in the Bay Area and Twin Falls, Idaho) are developing sustainable mobility offerings for employees. These programs can include an array of services, from on-campus EV chargers, access to carpooling programs, financial incentives for buying bikes, e-bikes and EVs, and — for the lucky few — rides to and from work in electric buses.

For most companies, tackling the carbon emissions associated with employee travel is a big part of the decision to offer these perks. For Inkga Group, 15 percent of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, a combination of employee and customer travel as well as goods delivery. IKEA is developing plans to halve its emissions from customer and employee travel, and is piloting a program to better help its 160,000 coworkers carpool together. 

But attracting and retaining employees remains a solid byproduct of overarching corporate sustainability goals. "A significant part of our employees are under 25, and we want to attract the best talent on the market. So we need to figure out how to get people to us," said IKEA Head of Sustainability Angela Hultberg at VERGE 20.

Nonprofits such as The Climate Group are increasingly working with these companies to help set goals around EVs. Genentech, Inka Group and Clif Bar are all members of the EV100, a group of companies that have pledged to deploy EV chargers on campuses and, when possible, convert vehicle fleets to electric. So far, 92 companies have joined the EV100, representing major growth from the program’s launch three years ago.

Another driving force behind the growth in corporate sustainable mobility programs is evolving consumer and political sentiment. Most Americans agree that global warming is happening, and the Biden administration is touting the most ambitious climate agenda in American history. Transportation emissions are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, and American cities, and some states such as California, are making big moves, including phasing out or banning fossil-fuel vehicles altogether. 

Companies with many employees commuting to their campuses also have learned that it’s smart to work closely with cities on the most sustainable ways to move hoards of workers to campuses. Their quality of life rises and the air gets cleaner. In communities when fewer single-occupancy vehicles are on the roads, there’s less traffic and shorter commute times.

Then there’s the advancing technology of electric vehicles, one of the leading solutions for slashing transportation emissions. The costs of the batteries that power EVs continue to drop, making electric vehicles cheaper, and global automakers including Volkswagen, General Motors and Daimler are investing billions of dollars into electrifying vehicle lines.

Years ago, an electric commuter bus would be far too expensive for a company such as Genentech to invest in, let alone own and operate dozens of them. But as battery prices plummet, electric buses actually can save companies money on fuel and maintenance costs over time.

The ubiquity of mobile computing, social networks and big data is also playing a role in new sustainable mobility services. Carpooling startup Scoop has developed an app that offers companies a way to help employees strategically carpool with coworkers and neighbors and even provide back-up rides with ride-hailing ones from Lyft.

Scoop says it is America’s largest carpooling app and works with 15 percent of the Fortune 100, including LinkedIn, Samsung and Rakuten. Rakuten HR Business Partner Elva Huang provides a testimonial for the app: "Building community and offering unique programs is the best way to attract and retain great talent. Scoop helps us provide our employees with an organic and genuine way to connect with one another on a shared experience."

Of course, like much in 2020, COVID-19 has upended how employees travel to work. Many are working from home for the foreseeable future, transportation emissions unexpectedly have dropped and public transit, in particular, has seen a disturbing decline in ridership.

A silver lining of the shift to remote work has been an increasing reliance and interest in telecommuting. Expect some key aspects of this trend to remain in place after employees return to offices, including significantly reduced business air travel and an increase in video conference calls. In 2021, companies will continue to leverage the sustainability and efficiency boosts of working from home, at least much more than pre-COVID. 

Some policymakers are even looking to codify such COVID-era sustainable transport trends into new mandates and goals. The San Francisco region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently proposed developing sustainable commute targets for companies that have more than 50 employees.

But eventually, as vaccines are widely deployed, employees across the globe will return to workplaces in greater numbers. It’s now the role of forward-looking companies — and their transportation leaders — to lean into sustainable mobility offerings for employees to enable their transition back in the greenest way possible.

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