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Unleashing employee creativity to deliver on sustainability

Ccorporate Sustainability Strategy

Engaging with employees to build a sustainability strategy together ensures they champion the cause. Photograph: Alamy


Powered by article titled “Unleashing employee creativity to deliver on sustainability” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Monday 7th July 2014 12.01 UTC

Every corporate strategy worth its salt has to have a simple, catchy title and sustainable growth is no exception; Unilever’s “Sustainable Living”, Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A” and IBM’s “Smarter Planet” offer a flavour of the current fare. Don’t mistake simple for simplistic, though. As with all effective communication, behind the brevity lies a set of complex, engaging ideas.

Take HP. The US technology company has a sustainability strategy it calls “Living Progress“, the stated aim of which is to “create a better future for everyone through our actions and innovations”. But getting employees on board is the key to “making that vision a reality”, says Gabi Zedlmayer, chief progress officer at HP.

Aligning interests

Yet companies face a dilemma. A catchy title might win the ear of their employees, but it won’t necessarily encourage them to act. For that to happen, companies need to appeal to employees’ hearts as much as their heads, says Zedlmayer: “Being able to meld HP’s long-term commitment to sustainability with the passion of our employees represents a winning formula.”

Before corporate strategists pick up their pens, they need to discover where it is that their employees’ passions lie. That means listening – through workshops, focus groups and other forms of structured dialogue. The next step should, in principle, be easy: provide the framework to let those passions loose.

Strong-arm tactics won’t work, warns Jay Coen Gilbert, founder of B Lab, a US-based non-profit organisation that certifies companies as sustainable: “Increasingly, telling people to care about sustainability – or what to do about it – is not as effective as asking them what they care about and what they think you should do about it together.”

That logic applies across the spectrum of sustainability issues, from building stronger communities or reducing carbon emissions through to reducing workplace accidents or eliminating corruption.

Alexi Carli, global health and safety manager at UPS, stresses the importance of employee ownership too: “If you want to nurture genuine employee engagement, it has to be less top-down and a lot more bottom up”, she says. “Management needs to provide support and an overall framework, as well as set expectations, but real employee creativity comes when you loosen the reins.”

UPS has clear procedures and strict targets for reducing injuries and auto accidents at work and its 3,300 health and safety committees all have management and non-management employees as co-chairs. The remaining members, approximately four to 20 people, are all operational employees. Such an approach not only gives a sense of employee ownership, but also provides the company with a ready network of peer-to-peer advocates. “When you give employees the latitude to act and when they see that those actions have value and are making a difference, then that will make them want to do more,” adds Carli, who notes that lost-time injury frequency has been reduced by nearly 15% since 2009.

Prompting passion

Volunteering provides another natural way of tapping into employees’ passions and exciting their interest in sustainability. Gib Bulloch, executive director of Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP), a social enterprise spin-off from consultancy firm Accenture, is a big fan. Volunteering opportunities – particularly those that are long-term and skills-based – can act as a “living laboratory for social innovation”, he says.

To think out of the box, employees have to live out of the box, he reasons: “There are lots of examples of where a volunteering programme can get people thinking out of the box and thinking about their skills, their job, their company’s products and services and how these might be able to solve a particular problem.”

He gives the example of an industrial engineer at UK pharmaceuticals company GSK. The mid-level employee came up with an idea for providing low-cost health diagnostics during a volunteering stint in Kenya. “It’s no surprise that the idea came to him in the slums of Nairobi,” says Bulloch.


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