Empowering Employees Helps Drive Sustainability in The Business

May 8, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-sustainable workforce

It is undeniable that employees are increasingly expressing their opinions about their organisations’ sustainability efforts, or lack thereof. These expectations are only projected to increase, particularly in terms of job seekers’ decisions to work for a particular employer.

Numerous surveys testify just how critical the sustainability of a business is in attracting new talent. For example, IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV) study, which polled over 16,000 people from 10 countries, found that 67% of respondents were more willing to apply for – and 68% more willing to accept – jobs from environmentally sustainable businesses.

Yet, employees, don’t just want to work for sustainable businesses, they also want those organisations to involve them in the process from the outset and empower them to help drive both their own sustainability and that of the business. In a study by Adobe, about a third of employees polled (35%) think that instituting sustainability practices at work would boost productivity rates, position their company as a leader (31%), and open more opportunities for innovation (37%). 43% think it would improve workplace culture.

Organisations increasingly understand this need also. A growing number appreciate that the key to building a successful sustainable business is in getting every employee personally involved in sustainability efforts: from the highest C-level executive through to the most junior member of staff. In line with this, in EY’s Long-Term Value and Corporate Governance Survey, more than a quarter (28%) of business leaders said attracting and retaining environmentally and socially-conscious talent and engaging employees is one of the main benefits of incorporating ESG factors into corporate strategy.

Organisations also increasingly understand that developing stronger environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials will make it easier for them to attract external finance. Firms with poor corporate sustainability disclosures are increasingly seen as risky investment propositions. Three in five private investors (60%) consider ESG when investing, according to the Association of Investment Companies (AIC). And it seems that the proportion who do so will grow significantly over time. Morningstar Inc. finds that money held in sustainable mutual funds and ESG-focused exchange-traded funds rose globally by 53% last year to $2.7 trillion, with a net $596 billion flowing into the strategy. 

Businesses increasingly understand and are motivated by the mantra ”move the money, change the world.”

Delivering sustainable operations is key to attracting the levels of ESG-related investment that ultimately drives real change but getting the buy-in and involvement of employees in the whole approach is equally critical to success. 

Enabling the workforce to play a key role

It is far from a given that businesses will be able to do this effectively, however. They will need to be proactive in their approach. 

One way that businesses can look to drive employee involvement in sustainability is by introducing frameworks to trigger workers’ mindsets and to guide the engagement process. 

There are multiple approaches that organisations can then adopt to drive more active employee engagement in sustainability projects. First, they can build trust with employees by increasing their awareness of customers who have successfully implemented sustainability initiatives. Such stories effectively act as proof of the business’s ESG credentials and therefore help to strengthen the bond between the organisation and its individual workers. For example, IFS’s Sustainability Report offers a comprehensive overview of our approach, priorities, targets, and initiatives related to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics. The report provides an account of our progress towards achieving excellence in our business, supporting our customers, and making a wider impact. It is aimed at both our employees and stakeholders and highlights our efforts to promote sustainability across all areas of our operations.

Moreover, organisations can introduce award programs designed to recognize sustainability excellence across its community of customers and provide an opportunity to celebrate those who act sustainably and make a genuine difference through the work they do. The IFS Change For Good Awards is now in its third year and recognizes excellence in sustainability within our customer community, both at the business and individual level. The awards celebrate those who make a difference, raise the bar, and act sustainably. Over the past two years, we have seen companies such as Volvo Group Circular Operations and Solutions, Cape Air, Rolls-Royce, and Nature’s Path demonstrate what is possible across industries to make a global and sustainable impact.

Another way organisations can further drive engagement, is through anything from tried-and-tested schemes like cycle-to-work initiatives, or ‘days to give’, for example, right through to enabling employees to invest in more sustainable pension or other finance plans. At IFS, we believe in promoting social responsibility and community engagement among our employees. As part of our efforts, we offer each employee the opportunity to participate in a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) day every year. During this day, employees can contribute to various local community projects and initiatives, making a positive impact in their surroundings and promoting a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Simply involving employees in such schemes, however, is no longer enough in itself. If it can then demonstrate to employees the benefit of these activities and they can see the rewards involved, the business can then add an emotional tie-in. Engagement is closely related to emotion here. 

Buying a bicycle is not necessarily emotional, in itself, but getting fit and healthy is. Taking part in a ‘giving day’ is not necessarily emotional until the participant sees the reward from it – a painted soup kitchen, or a garden makeover, for example.  

Ultimately, it is advertising and promoting this kind of approach through the business that will engage others and help to get them more involved in future sustainability initiatives. 

Helping to create a sustainability-focused culture

Businesses that successfully link sustainability and employee satisfaction through the kinds of initiatives outlined above will kick start a symbiotic relationship between the two that will increase their ESG performance levels over time.

Employers with higher ESG scores than their competitors tend to have the highest employee satisfaction rates and vice versa a study by Mercer suggests. According to Mercer: “This finding suggests that ESG performance can help companies both improve employee satisfaction and attract prospective employees.” This is likely to be because emerging generations of workers, in particular, place great importance on environmental and social issues and concerns. 

Employers that mirror the values of these generations are, therefore, more likely to both attract these employees in the first place, and win their loyalty over time.  Mercer also argues: 

This [link between ESG and employee satisfaction] is significant because prior research shows that satisfied employees work harder, stay longer with their employers, and seek to produce better results for the organisation.

How technology can support employee focused ESG initiatives 

Technology tools are available that help with sustainability by enabling employees to collect ESG information and report on it. 

Knowledge gathered and shared in this way is effectively creating engagement, providing another example of how technology solutions can enable employees to help drive business sustainability. The data generated by these technological processes also help businesses to track and measure the engagement levels, enabling organisations to prove their approach is working effectively. 

The role of technology in delivering these kinds of metrics for businesses is key. Employees want evidence that their employer is delivering on its promise to be sustainable. Simply seeing that recycling bins or cycle to work schemes are in place is not enough in itself. They need to know precisely by how much the company has reduced its emissions, for example, or how much it has recycled. 

This kind of evidence helps employees to believe in the vision and be proud to work for the business. Having a vision is no longer sufficient, companies need the proof that sits around the goals to truly engage employees. Businesses could go beyond this also and link business goals around sustainability with team and employee goals to further drive engagement. 

Plotting a way forward

As we look to the future, organisations increasingly understand the importance of sustainability and are focused on bringing in more sustainable ways of working. They see getting staff involved in the process as key to their success in driving ESG initiatives and enhancing sustainability across the business in general but also in helping to build employee engagement.

As such, businesses are bringing in new initiatives to guide employee involvement in sustainability and ESG plans and empower them to take positive action to promote more sustainable approaches. Increasingly too, as we have seen, organisations are using technology to capture, share and ultimately promote the value of these methods. Businesses that deliver on the above objectives will reap the rewards in terms of both enhanced sustainability and the development of an engaged workforce and attract socially conscious talent.

Kate Bishop

Chief Human Resources Officer, IFS

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