9 Tips for Communicating Sustainability in the Workplace

Most organizations take the “if we build it, they will come” approach to rolling out sustainability programs, but employees traditionally don’t look to their employer to help them live more sustainably. Even worse, many see organizational initiatives as being more of a PR move than a genuine effort to decrease negative environmental impact.

If you want to let your staff know that you’re serious about sustainability AND get them to actively participate in programs and contribute to initiatives, try these nine tips.

1. Be Clear About Your Goals

Staff will be much less likely to question your motives if you’re up front about why sustainability is important to your organization. Sharing specific, tangible goals (e.g., increase use of public transportation by 40%) will motivate staff to join in the effort. Show your people that you’re integrating these objectives into operations: tie them to overall business objectives and performance evaluations and implement relevant policies and procedures.

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2. Make it Personal

If you’re trying to encourage behavior change in the workplace and beyond, you need to make the benefits relevant to staff as individuals. Take time to discover what your employees need, value and want. What’s in it for them? What will happen if they don’t engage in sustainable behaviors? Use this information to communicate with them on a more personal level: appeal to values and egos, bribe shamelessly and develop incentives to encourage participation.

Think about how you can make it easy for employees to act more sustainably. Want people to stop drinking bottled water? Stop supplying it and provide reusable water bottles.

If you’re not sure what will be meaningful and easy, ask your staff. Including employees early in your planning – and on an ongoing basis – builds enthusiasm and buy-in. Add a question about sustainability attitudes to required reports or host a lunch to get feedback on ideas for reducing employee consumption.

3. Recognize Achievements

Positive reinforcement is much more effective than guilt. When we feel good about doing something, we’re much more likely to keep doing it.

Recognition can range from a simple staff sustainability superstar profile in the employee eNewsletter to something more involved like company-wide contests. Contests are a great way to incentivize participation and encourage healthy competition amongst coworkers, while bringing colleagues together and allowing you to recognize more people at different levels.

Whatever you do, make it fun and positive!

4. Take a Holistic Approach

Most organizations we work with are eager for immediate change, but behavior change takes time and requires a sustained, holistic approach. If you do one project here and there – or let programs lapse – you’ll never gain momentum and staff will have a hard time seeing how these efforts relate to larger goals.

Plan for multi-faceted communications over time, with each touch point reinforcing the last. Coming at it from different angles allows you to communicate with a variety of employee types, while connecting the dots between specific initiatives.

5. Be Consistent

When your sustainability communications hang together, employees are more likely to recognize how these efforts compliment and build on each other toward your shared vision.

Establishing a personality, voice and tone to apply to all communications is a good first step toward consistency. Use these to inform creation of core messaging for your sustainability program. If possible, create a visual look and feel to provide consistent visual cues and make sustainability communications easy to recognize. This might include a logo(s), iconography, color palette, typography and photographic image styles.

Think about who will develop and use the sustainability and wellness “brand” elements and be sure they have the resources they need to do so effectively. Consider having an orientation, followed by regular check-ins with this group to discuss how it’s going, exchange ideas and identify new elements to consider.

6. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Look at how your organization currently operates and identify areas for change. Then, review how you already communicate with staff and infuse sustainability messaging into those existing channels. Add a rotating tip to the homepage of your company intranet, create a folder of tools and resources on the shared drive or add a regular column to your eNewsletter.

Getting creative with even the most ordinary communication can send big signals to your people. Why not record volunteering hours on paystubs or provide managers with a menu of brief sustainability impact statements for meeting agendas?

Also think about everyday actions and insert communications at the point of impact. Healthy lunch ideas posted on the refrigerator and stickers on copiers encouraging double sided printing are easy, low-cost ways to encourage positive behavior where and when staff can take action.

7. Keep it Simple

In all of your communication, don’t get bogged down with endless lists and background info. Unless they’re seeking out information for a specific purpose, your staff will likely be skimming whatever information you provide. Offer manageable bits of information. Avoid jargon. Include a call to action.

8. Evaluate and Update

Create momentum by regularly sharing the impact of efforts with staff. While large, formal reports may be helpful to show the cumulative effect of accomplishments, don’t wait to tell employees the impact of their actions. Share the good and the bad. Be sure to respond to feedback, and let them know that you’re making changes based on their input.

Updating staff means that you’ll need to think about how you will measure and evaluate sustainability efforts from the start. This may also help you think through how to structure programs, contests, outreach, etc.

The effort you put into measurement and evaluation now will save you time and money in the long-run by helping you identify where to keep putting resources, what to tweak and when to refocus.

 9. Be Patient

Don’t throw in the towel if changes aren’t noticeable right away even if people seem enthusiastic. Remember that behavior change takes time. While sustainability may be a high priority for your organization, it may not top the list of things competing for the time and attention of your employees.

Continue to talk to staff to find ways to reduce any barriers to their participation. When you get discouraged, keep in mind the long-term impacts on the health and wellbeing of your employees, your company and your planet.

Do you have any other advice for those struggling to make sustainability a reality? For the love of Earth Day, share your wisdom in the comments below! 

Anne is a strategic partner to RoundPeg, offering consulting on select projects to figure out how to use marketing to help people make good choices. In her free time, she enjoys sampling obscure teas, spending as much time at the beach as possible and spoiling her darling rescue dogs, Molly and Phoebe. An impassioned communicator and people person, Anne enjoys bringing people together and offering advice to anyone who wants it [or doesn’t]. See more posts by Anne.
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