Covid-19: the alignment opportunity between sustainability and employee engagement Covid-19: the alignment opportunity between sustainability and employee engagement
For the past 6 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our collective imaginations, permeating nearly every dimension of our personal and professional lives.
With the world focused on addressing this global health crisis, corporate executives have been feeling the competing pressures of needing to address immediate priorities, whilst also acknowledging that sustainability (too often thought of as long term action) presents an opportunity for competitive advantage and answers current expectations. It’s a lot to navigate. For many businesses, sustainability commitments will be more challenging to meet with capital expenditures frozen for the foreseeable future, short and immediate-term operational challenges brought on by the pandemic taking precedent over a longer-term sustainability strategy, and redirecting employee’s attention towards sustainability might feel tone deaf given the personal and professional obstacles many of them now face. Yet, as we’ve outlined in this piece, there are a number of reasons why now is the perfect time to bring your corporate sustainability agenda in the forefront, and in doing so energize employees around a shared vision for a thriving society, planet and the role responsible business plays in delivering that.
There are both pragmatic and empathic advantages to doing so.
On the practical side of things, time and carbon budgets are running out. According to the UN IPCC, there are only 10 years left to cut carbon pollution by 45% and avoid climate change catastrophe. We simply can’t afford to take time off as researchers work to get a COVID-19 vaccine approved and distributed to the global population. And while experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in lower global CO2 emissions this year, it won’t be enough to reach the annual emissions reduction target needed over the next decade. As one climate researcher put it, "If this is all we get from shutting the entire world down, it illustrates the scope and scale of the climate challenge, which is fundamentally changing the way we make and use energy and products."
From a human perspective, which still aligns with key business priorities, engaging employees with a corporate sustainability agenda that’s centered on finding solutions and making the world a more equitable and resilient place could provide a much-needed boost to morale in these trying times. While for many companies working from home may be going better than anticipated, feelings of isolation are on the rise and employee engagement is at a low. Businesses need to uncover how to re-ignite their workforces.
Sustainability provides the perfect opportunity to drive engagement and generate pride. It can create a flow of positive messages against a backdrop of constant bad news. Focusing on sustainability not only enables employees to unite around a set of shared goals, it also creates an opportunity for companies to demonstrate how the current focus on employee safety and well-being fits within their longer-term sustainability strategy and vision.
Four ways to engage employees on sustainability amidst the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Emphasise linkages, show people the full ecosystem
The current crisis presents a good opportunity to highlight the holistic nature of your company’s sustainability platform (if this is in fact the case) by showcasing everything you are doing to support employees and the communities within which you operate.
Work in the social sphere is even more important in light of the fact that COVID-19 has not affected all communities equally. Social inequalities and fissures in the social safety net have only been exacerbated by the crisis.
- Racial Inequality: Across the United States and United Kingdom, deaths due to COVID-19 are disproportionately high among African Americans compared with the population overall. Other communities of color have also experienced a disproportionate impact – not to mention the rise in hate crimes targeting individuals of Asian descent.
- Gender Inequality: While early reports suggest that men are more likely to succumb to COVID-19, according to the United Nations Foundation the social and economic toll will be paid, disproportionately, by the world’s girls and women.
- Income Inequality: In many cases, lower-income individuals have beared the brunt of the global crisis. Many have had to continue working through the pandemic, and thus experience more exposure to the disease, either because their roles are deemed “essential” or because they simply cannot afford to miss work. While others, such as hospitality industry workers in the global West and workers in garment factories across Asia, have faced widespread layoffs.
It might seem as if your company’s efforts to address diversity and inclusion and pay equity or to create employment pathways for underrepresented groups do not directly support the pandemic response, but, in fact, they do. Emphasizing these linkages to employees will help to ensure that your broader sustainability efforts still feel relevant during these times.
Links between the current pandemic and the environment are clear, too. Research from the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health suggest that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked. In the case of COVID-19, this could mean that increased urbanization and the associated disruption of habitats and ecological balance could be directed related to higher risk of exposure to new pathogens and the emergence of new diseases – yet another reason for sustainability to remain a priority, supporting biodiversity and ecosystem health may help to prevent the next pandemic.
2. Borrow communication tactics: simple language and collective effort
Thanks to the current pandemic, we all share an understanding of how the collective efforts of the global population can help to achieve a shared goal. In a matter of weeks, obscure public health terms (e.g. flattening the curve) have become common vernacular. The concept of drastically altering human behavior on a global scale to prevent a crisis from worsening is well understood by the general public now, too.
Though the threat is less imminent (and different in a host of other ways), there is a lot sustainability professionals can learn from the public health community about how to make a global crisis like climate change feel personal and directly linked to individual behaviors.
A good first step would be to use simple and consistent terminology in all internal sustainability communications. This will be a challenge in a field that tends to rely on confusing jargon and various terms to refer to the same concept, but as we’ve seen in the pandemic response: simplicity is key. The use of straightforward graphics to reinforce a concept is another tactic to borrow.
Is there a single graphic that can be developed to demonstrate your 'hero' sustainability goal (e.g. halving GHG emissions by 2030) and how employees can contribute to it?
3. Underscore the opportunity to engage employees and drive progress against your sustainability goals
Countless studies have proven that behavior change starts at home. Given that household consumption behavior is responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions, one could argue that now is the ideal time to engage employees on sustainability. This could be done by:
- Mapping your corporate sustainability priorities (e.g. reducing energy, water and meat consumption, increasing recycling, etc.) to at-home behaviors.
- Providing employees with practical guidance on how to make their homes more sustainable, such as improving their homes’ energy and water efficiency, noting the financial as well as environmental impacts of making these shifts.
- Highlighting the emissions saved by working from home versus commuting into the office and reduced business travel. If your company tracks scope 3 emissions, there’s also an opportunity to celebrate how this shift in employee behavior is contributing to your corporate carbon reduction targets and discuss how these working patterns might be maintained post-pandemic.
The new remote working context means activity can start at home today, allowing employees to change behaviors over time and in a way that will ultimately positively impact what happens in an in-office working environment. If there’s one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic it’s that we’ve proven what we can in fact, band together and achieve a great deal through collective action.
4. Activate employee advocates
The pandemic has spurred a fundamental shift in the corporate communications landscape towards an ultra-human approach. Having spent the past two months peering into your colleagues’ living rooms, the time for the perfectly polished corporate messaging and veneer is over.
Once empowered to do so, employees can play a vital role by serving as ambassadors who add credibility and authenticity to your corporate messages. They also often have more followers than corporate social media accounts and their stories are more likely to be believed and trusted by customers and other stakeholders. At the same time, disengaged or disgruntled employees are just as likely to utilize social media to voice their concerns and dissent.
It is incumbent on businesses to unlock the power of employee advocacy by identifying and delivering training needs to ensure their people feel equipped to operate in this space, as well as creating sustainability-rich content for employees to share on their networks. The results can be powerful. By encouraging employees to get involved, they can see first-hand how their business is making tangible improvements to its sustainability agenda. This in turn generates employee pride and engagement.
Effective engagement is key to achieving sustainability goals, and at the heart are four core principles: a clear, compelling story where employees understand the part they play; leaders and managers who are equipped to motivate teams towards achieving credible goals; an infrastructure that supports genuine listening to ensure employee feedback is acted on and people are involved in creating meaningful change; and a small ‘say-do’ gap where leaders are visibly living by the commitments they have made – openly and with integrity.
This is more than just raising awareness of issues, but allowing employees to immerse themselves in designing the solutions through thought-provoking interactions and gamification, multi-touchpoint campaigns linked to clear focal points and milestones to provide a clear role for everyone along your corporate sustainability journey.
It’s a journey where corporate messaging should be pushed aside and story-telling based on genuine actions, told by the very people who are helping deliver them, will have the greatest impact.
Questions to consider
Building on this thinking, we would love to explore the following questions in the third installment of our CONNECTED video conversations:
- How has COVD-19 impacted how you communicate with and engage employees on sustainability?
- Has there been a shift in the focus of your sustainability communications between environmental and social initiatives? What has been the main driver for this change?
- What social and environmental initiatives within your company’s sustainability agenda can be linked to the pandemic response?
- What priorities within your environmental strategy (e.g. reducing energy, water and meat consumption, increasing recycling, etc.) could employees further while at home?
- How might you use the concept of flattening the curve (with the key dotted line showing healthcare system limits) to engage employees on the topic of planetary limits?
- What other public health communications tactics could be borrowed for your internal sustainability communications?
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