How PECI engages employees on small projects for big impact

How PECI engages employees on small projects for big impact

How to engage employees in the conversation about workplace sustainability? How to turn limited resources into efforts that make a real difference, are meaningful to people and are financially sustainable?

Seeking answers to these questions is my job as coordinator of sustainability and internal communications at PECI, an energy-efficiency non-profit headquartered in Portland.

Our clear advantage, as an energy-efficiency non-profit, is the personal commitment to sustainability that employees bring to the workplace. At lunchtime on any given day, people are just as likely to swap tips on container gardening as they are to comment on pop culture or sports. Every day, 29 percent of employees commute by bike and 43 percent use public transit. We’re continuously seeking ways to reduce paper consumption and divert more of our waste to compost and recycling.

So when it comes to ideas for improving our sustainability, our employees are our best resource. Last year, we came up with a new way to gather and implement those ideas.

Sustainability Kickstart

Our green team, which is responsible for creating PECI’s environmental policies and promoting employee education and community outreach, decided to allocate some of its budget to fund a Sustainability Kickstart. We designed this internal grant program to provide direct financial support and project management for new sustainability efforts. We asked for ideas that would help PECI hit the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit with a budget up to $1,000 per project.

To be considered, employees submitted an application describing the environmental and social/cultural benefits of their ideas, as well as costs and anticipated timelines. Applications were reviewed by a single-blind, 14-employee panel that included leaders of our green team, members of the IT department, our facilities manager and employees who work in the field, away from our main office. The group discussed and debated each idea, came back with questions for the applicants, and ultimately decided to move ahead with two projects: a bike share program and a subsidy on fresh fruit in our on-site vending services.

The winners had the responsibility to get their ideas off the ground in order to implement them. Each project was supported by a team, which made it easy to divide up tasks, hold each other accountable and maintain momentum.

The aim of the PECI Bike Share was to create a new, zero-emission transportation option for employees. We work in a dense urban environment, and many of our partners live in close proximity. Bikes provide an easy way to go to meetings — faster than buses and more convenient than hunting for street parking. The team leading this project wanted to provide an opportunity for those without a bike to use one during the day for work purposes or to check one out for the weekend for personal use.

Luckily, one team member has a background in bike repair and knew what to look for when researching a model that would be comfortable for most riders. As the project developed, we learned that there are legal considerations for using a shared bike. We worked with our legal department to create a waiver, and the team created a bike-safety video for employees to watch before they take the bikes out. As a result, we now have two company-branded bikes with lights, locks, bells and panniers. They’ve been taken to meetings, networking events, volunteer events, running errands and for leisurely lunchtime rides.

The Fresh Fruit Subsidy project aimed to promote healthy food choices. While fresh fruit had been available at the vending marketplace in our kitchen area for some time, it wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. The idea behind this submission was two-fold. First, make people aware that fruit is available (moving it to eye-level and near other best-sellers); second, use subsidized pricing to entice people to purchase fruit over the other typical vending options. In discussing the idea, our panel wondered whether the project would help us develop a fresh-fruit habit that would last after the subsidy ends. Ultimately, they agreed that this type of experimentation is precisely what Kickstart is about — fantastic if successful, but otherwise a valuable lesson about behavior change and subsidization.

The project team worked directly with our third-party food vending service to collect data and coordinate changes to on-site displays. They enlisted the help of one of our marketing copywriters to create signs around the office to promote awareness of the changes. For four months, the price of fruit was dropped by 80 percent. As a result, we saw a 1,700 percent increase in fruit sales over historical data. Employees expressed that knowing about the fruit option helped them make healthier choices by encouraging them to purchase fruit more regularly.

After the success of the initial subsidy, our administration team elected to implement a permanent subsidy. We’ve since maintained strong fruit sales, averaging 330 pieces of fruit sold per month over an average of 13 pieces per month before the introduction of the Kickstart’s fruit subsidy. Anecdotally, we think the rise in fruit purchases has positively influenced our wastestream: when people choose fruit instead of snacks with packaging, they produce compostable waste instead of landfill.

What We Learned

Funding these small projects has proved to be a unique and relatively inexpensive way to engage our employees. Along the lines of Susan Camberis’ June article on sustainability and employee engagement, we experienced the “golden triangle” firsthand, and witnessed how “positively affecting one of the three factors (sustainability) [can], in turn, positively affect the other two (employee engagement and business results).”

We made the most of our limited resources by engaging our willing pool of environmentally mindful employees and giving them the opportunity to express what they’re most passionate about. As a result, they were active participants and helped move the organization’s sustainability efforts forward in ways that no one person can. We learned that integrating sustainability practices in the workplace is what people want. And so we’re gearing up for another Sustainability Kickstart this year.

If you find yourself thinking, “I doubt my company has as many advocates for sustainability as yours does,” let me suggest that you might be surprised. Then again, assuming that you’re right, bear in mind that it doesn’t necessarily take much to unleash plenty. And that's the whole point.

Top image: PECI staffers JJ Green and Sandy Nguyen head out for lunch using the PECI bike share (Credit: PECI.)