The importance of involving employees in a company’s sustainable transformation and how it works
Many companies say their people are their most valuable asset. Then why aren’t they meaningfully engaging them in their sustainability efforts? All too often, I see companies scrambling to get serious about sustainability but ignoring one of the most powerful and readily available resources they already have - their employees. This blog will explain the importance of employee engagement for your company’s sustainability strategy and share practical tips for how to get started.
According to the Science Based Targets Initiative, the number of companies who’ve made commitments to reduce their carbon emissions has risen nearly 14,000% since 2015! But most of these companies lack people with the skills and expertise needed to turn those pledges into progress. Where will companies find them? At the same time, according to Deloitte's 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, 42% of these employees have changed or plan to change jobs due to climate concerns, 50% are pushing their employer to drive change on environmental issues, but only 15% feel they are able to influence their company’s sustainability efforts. The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs is Green 2023” report is even clearer: 26% say sustainability is their top non-negotiable for a new employer. Are you seeing the trend here? A majority of the workforce wants to work for companies that are serious about sustainability, and they want to play a part, even if it isn’t in their job description. These employees are the key to accelerating sustainability at scale.
Forward-looking companies recognize that meeting their sustainability commitments, attracting and retaining top talent, and continuously innovating in an era of climate disruption will require two things done in parallel: hiring or growing employees with deep subject matter expertise in areas like carbon accounting, and engaging their entire workforce in their sustainability efforts. In short, they will need to create a culture of sustainability in order to stay relevant. Employee engagement offers the path of least resistance, and the good news is your organization probably already has some experience doing it!
In this context, I define employee engagement as actions to increase employee participation in a company’s environmental sustainability efforts. It's about proactively and intentionally creating ways to educate, inspire, and activate all employees (more on that below) to make sustainability part of everybody's job. That does not mean that an organization knows precisely how every employee can find their own unique way to contribute – it means creating the right conditions and incentives to enable the creativity and experimentation required for everyone to figure it out collectively.
The organizational structure companies have historically used to operationalize sustainability is simply inadequate for the scale, speed, and complexity of the climate crisis. We need to reimagine who gets to work on sustainability and invite everybody to contribute. Experience tells us that you don’t have to have sustainability in your job title to come up with the next great idea! Every role at every level will need to figure out how they are distinctively positioned to accelerate this transformation. This is about the democratization of sustainability, grounded in the idea that everyone has something meaningful to contribute.
Even with growing influence and resources, professional sustainability teams often remain small, siloed, and chronically under-resourced. These factors can limit their ability to enact the widespread changes needed to embed sustainability throughout every part of the organization. Like most things in the climate crisis, this is a problem of scale. From reducing global carbon emissions to creating a circular economy to minimize waste, these problems are literally planetary in size. Solutions will have to match that scale. Where you work, getting there will require widespread cooperation across the entirety of your organization.
When we consider that dedicated sustainability professionals are not positioned to innovate new ways for existing job functions to contribute and change behavior to reduce environmental impact, a new way of thinking emerges. What would happen if every employee helped drive sustainable transformation from the jobs they already have? What would it look like to examine the intersection of sustainability with every existing role in your company? For example, who could articulate the principles of green software engineering better than software engineers? Who better to define the principles of sustainable design than designers? Perhaps you’ve heard the rallying cry: every job is a climate job now. This is the future of sustainability work. By engaging all of your employees to amplify the efforts of professional sustainability teams, your company can scale to meet these challenges and create a culture of sustainability along the way.
So how exactly can your organization successfully engage its employees in sustainability? There are no one-size-fits-all answers but here’s what I’ve learned in my 7 years doing this work at Microsoft, widely considered to be a leader in corporate sustainability. I developed this framework, the virtuous cycle of employee engagement. This cycle will assume kinetic energy and become self-propelling over time. Like a snowball rolling down a hill becoming an avalanche, it will gain momentum and draw in everything in its path. Individual employees can enter the cycle at any point depending on their experience, but it’s critical they move through all three phases. Once they have, they will understand what sustainability is (and isn’t), how to make it part of their job, and how to help others do the same.
Education is the best place to start because sustainability fluency is a critical precursor for everything that follows. With a topic this massive and complex, you must first establish a shared language. Every employee should understand what sustainability is, why it matters, and how their company is approaching it. With that knowledge, they are much better positioned to figure out the unique ways they can contribute. Without it, employees may not understand how their individual actions align or ladder up to the company’s which can lead to wasted effort and frustration on both sides.
Provide formal training on sustainability! Like anything you expect your employees to understand, training is essential. If you don’t have the resources to create a sustainability training yourself, there are lots of other companies who specialize in this area.
Frequent and honest communication is crucial. Share your company’s sustainability goals and progress to employees regularly and transparently in all existing rhythms of business. Normalize and socialize sustainability in town halls, newsletters, and all other mechanisms already being used to communicate with the workforce.
Open up two-way channels of communication between leadership and employees. Remember communication means listening just as much as speaking. All of us have a lot to learn!
With education in place, it's time to inspire people by demonstrating what is possible! This is especially important because people need to understand how to move from abstract concepts and data to tactical application.
Highlight success stories and whenever possible, share how it was done, especially if it was a grassroots, volunteer employee effort.
Share the Job Function Action Guides by Project Drawdown in your company. These practical and shareable resources highlight specific, high-impact climate actions employees in common corporate professions can take at work (finance, government and public policy, human resources and operations, legal, marketing, procurement, sales and client facing roles).
Ask your employees for their ideas on what the company can do to be more sustainable, centralize the suggestions, and offer a reward for ideas with the most feasibility! Many employees have great ideas, they’re just waiting for you to ask!
Now the really cool stuff can happen! With foundational knowledge and a belief in what is possible, employees can be turned loose to figure out exactly how to make sustainability part of their job. Leaders, in turn, should provide the resources and conditions that allow experimentation to thrive.
Create or support an employee sustainability community! This is one of the most cost effective ways to activate employees at scale. Learn more in my blog post How to Build Your Own Employee Sustainability Community (microsoft.com)
Incentivize and reward meaningful work with meaningful recognition! Avoid typical SWAG (stuff we all get, aka, cheap, disposable plastic freebies companies love to give away) and get creative. Consider professional development stipends, discounts on sustainability courses, carbon removal credits, time-off for volunteering, or donation matching to environmental nonprofits, or featuring your employees in your external sustainability reports.
Provide real resources for all of this, aka a budget, headcount, and top down support from leadership. Start with executive sponsorship for employee engagement from your company’s Chief Sustainability Officer or equivalent. If possible, make it part of the strategy.
Moving your workforce through the virtuous cycle of employee engagement is a durable way to engage employees and create a culture of sustainability.
The Climate Action Day (also Climate Week) is an annual climate action event that gives companies and their entire workforce a platform to work on relevant sustainability topics, implement concrete measures and thus raise awareness for climate action.
Companies that understand the value of engaging all of their employees on sustainability will thrive in a climate changed world. By democratizing sustainability work across all roles and job functions, organizations can attract and retain top talent, unlock innovation, and develop a workforce with high sustainability fluency. In short, employee engagement for sustainability is about bringing more helping hands to a problem that is larger than any one of us, or our companies. It’s about living up to the promise that your people are your most valuable asset by including them in the work of our lifetimes.
About the author
Drew Wilkinson is a climate activist, community organizer, and co-founder of Microsoft’s 10,000 member employee sustainability community. His mission is to make sustainability part of everybody’s job. He works for Planet Earth but provides consulting services for employee engagement through his business the Climate Leadership Collective. Learn more on his website.