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How to change energy saving behaviour in the office

Box of Chocolates

Offering free chocolates encouraged people to change their habits. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian


Powered by article titled “How to change energy saving behaviour in the office” was written by Matthew Jenkin, for on Thursday 6th February 2014 16.25 UTC

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle’s words ring as true today as they did in ancient Greece. Switching off lights and powering down computers at the end of the day is a habit which many small business owners would like to see staff cultivate and perfect. Especially when the rewards of doing so are so great for the entrepreneur.

But despite their best efforts, many SME owners still struggle to convince some stubborn staff members to be more energy conscious at work. The problem, unfortunately, is that bad habits die hard.

“It is very difficult to change people’s behaviour,” admits Amy Brann, author of Make Your Brain Work. “Fundamentally, that’s because our brains like to be as efficient as possible. We’ve got all these systems set up so that we can work on autopilot. Unfortunately, that means when we want to change something we’re going to have to expel effort, energy and attention which, if our brain had a choice in the matter, it would really rather not be doing.”

Jae Mathers, director of sustainability at chartered accountants HW Fisher, teaches about engaging staff in energy efficiency at the University of Birmingham. He explains: “We are not logical or rational creatures, so we need to use other incentives.

“Humans are interested in being just like everybody else. So how do you create positive behavioural changes around environment and energy which eventually makes it normal for everybody to turn off lights and equipment?”

Brann suggests harnessing the power of our brain’s automatic system in two ways. The first is to appeal to people’s motivation to do the right thing, not just for the company which they feel an affinity with, but for the benefit of the planet.

Sometimes, however, a more pragmatic approach is needed. Brann says a “traffic light” system where staff are ranked red, amber or green according to how energy efficient they are can be effective. A little healthy competition is a good motivator.

A similar technique worked well for Mathers. In a previous role for a local authority in the UK, he printed out post-it notes – green ones that said, ‘Congratulations you turned your computer and screen off. Here’s a free Fairtrade chocolate’, and then red ones which said, ‘Sorry, unfortunately you forgot to turn off your computer/screen today so you missed out on getting a free chocolate’.

Mathers says: “We just walked around the floors and just did it once in a while, sticking post-it notes on people’s things so they did it right next time. We shifted from 30% of people turning things off at the end of the day to about 70%. But if you looked at it again six months later, it had gone back to about 60%. So, it doesn’t stick without constant repeated effort.”

Offering bonuses and any form of social recognition is an obvious carrot for any employee. But other things which are perhaps a little more off the wall include getting people to sign contracts when they first start at the company, promising they will help save energy in the office. That way, Brann explains, they feel it is their duty to behave in a particular way, and are much more likely to do it.

Brann says: “Perhaps if the company agreed that by being a green organisation, they will have more money to spend on things they really want to invest in, and are benefitting the planet, then you could have everyone sign a very brief contract with all the names at the top, and display it somewhere public in the office.

“If people are in breach of that, there is a discord which activates areas of the brain which makes us feel a bit uncomfortable and leads more towards the behaviour that we want.”

The key, she says, is to experiment with different techniques in your company and see what works.

“Trial something and see what happens,” she adds. “You might get a lot more benefits than you initially expected.”

Taking simple actions, such as switching off lights when not in use, can save small businesses over a hundred pounds a year, according to E.ON. Educating your team about the consequences of poor energy habits – or posting the successes of internal campaigns – is a big part of improving things, as is laying down the ground rules on what should be done and by whom. People need to be encouraged to switch things off, and are sometimes not sure if they’re “allowed” to do it. E.ON already has a package of help on their website which includes downloadable posters, as well as advice companies can use around their sites to inspire and educate colleagues.

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional on behalf of E.ON. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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