How to engage employees on sustainability at work

Half of the world’s largest companies are committed to reaching net zero, as regulation, investor pressure, and a growing economic case for sustainability, push this all-important topic up the agenda.

However, even as record numbers of companies set new sustainability targets1, many are finding that employees are not aware of the strategy and unsure of the actions they can take to support it. This is even though most people want to work for a company with strong environmental commitments, and over 80%2 of those people want to be involved in doing something about it.

That’s why we recently undertook a research project to find out what companies are doing to bridge the gap between sustainability strategies and employee action and the current best practices used by market leaders to close the gap.

Priorities and solutions to engage employees

To answer these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews with more than ten sustainability specialists from large companies across sectors, including professional services, financial services, utilities and hospitality. We combined the detailed information from these interviews with survey data on staff attitudes, an analysis of 30 global company sustainability reports, and a review of over 250 best practice examples from companies and leading global initiatives.

three key Priorities for employee engagement

Our research highlighted three key priorities:

  • Relevance is crucial. People want to hear about what they can do, not just what the company is trying to achieve. Sustainability at work needs to be real.
  • If companies are targeting Scope 3 then they’ve got to take all their employees with them. Whilst Scope 3 creates data complexity it’s also provides an opportunity. Not only are there many Scope 3 areas where many employees can make a difference, but companies also know that they cannot hit Scope 3 targets without employees and suppliers being on board.
  • Companies needs strong commitments if they want their employees to get behind them. 73% want to work for a firm with a strong environmental commitment, and for 18-24s looking for a new job, this ranked higher than home working and flexible working3.

The importance of Scope 3

Scope 3 is the most complex and challenging area to manage and is typically 75% of a company’s total emissions4. It is also an area where employees have a role to play. For example, business travel, waste, commuting, and home working are all affected by employee behaviours. As a result, employee engagement in sustainability in the workplace is growing.

However, our research also highlighted commonality among the approaches that companies are taking to bridge the gap:

Awareness raising is key

Companies are embracing the importance of internal communications to raise awareness and shift mindsets. Information is flowing more regularly and with a greater use of stories to make it real. In a busy workplace, with multiple demands on employee attention, companies are also using innovative communication techniques to cut through and gain traction.

Relevance is crucial

Learning and development is increasingly personalised, and companies are trying new methods to engage staff beyond e-learning to build carbon literacy and sustainability knowledge. Employees want actions they can take in their day-to-day roles. Senior leaders want clear business benefits.

Change the message

Companies are reversing sustainability stereotypes. Instead of engaging employees with messages of concern about climate change companies are focusing on the opportunities. They’re also running innovative programmes such as competitions and challenges to create a sense of fun which help engagement and reach new audiences beyond those with an interest in sustainability.

More collaboration

Companies are experimenting with enhanced collaboration across the company and value chain, running employee engagement activities with partners. However, few companies have solved this problem yet.

Make it part of the job

Companies in the vanguard are making sustainability real for employees. This includes adding sustainability goals to annual reviews, providing actions to support company commitments, and adding incentives to make it happen.

As a result of this Giki has launched work challenges, which are fun, inspiring, and inclusive employee engagement activities to:

  • Shift mindsets about the role employees can play
  • Build sustainability knowledge that’s relevant and actionable
  • Help employees identify the actions they can take to accelerate sustainability commitments and priorities
  • Work with companies to raise awareness of their sustainability strategy

Why work challenges?

More and more company sustainability teams tell us they need mindset and culture change to enable good internal support and success of their sustainability goals. Drivers of behaviour change we see through Giki’s employee engagement programme are social norming, competition, and ease. The new Giki work challenges build on the successes of hundreds of lifestyles challenges we have run with companies over recent years. They inspire employees to learn and act together through a combination of these behavioural approaches.

Data and insights are crucial, to enable impact measurement and inform future decision-making.  The gap between corporate sustainability goals and employee action is becoming a blocker to successful emissions reductions, which are under the spotlight from investors, regulators, customers, and staff. As a result, employee engagement around work-related actions is up the agenda for leadership teams.

But cutting through business priorities, monthly and quarterly requirements, and the multitude of pressures that employees feel, requires an innovative, inclusive, and motivating approach. This is why we have launched work challenges. Wherever employees are in their sustainability knowledge, we find that team camaraderie, competition, and accessible, arresting, and surprising communications are a great way to build momentum.

It can be challenging for companies to engage their employees to get involved, which is where we come in. We’ve also put together a free guide for more information on how to successfully align your team with your sustainability goals.

It’s time for companies to enable employees to lead their journey to Net Zero.

  1. 40% growth in new targets 2022-2023. ↩︎
  2. ↩︎
  3. The polling of 1,164 employed individuals aged 16+, of a nationally representative UK sample, was carried out by Censuswide between 10th and 12th January 2022. ↩︎
  4. CDP-technical-note-scope-3-relevance-by-sector.pdf ↩︎