Putting purpose to work

Build employee engagement into sustainability plans

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For the past couple of years, thought leaders and business publications have been talking about the shifting workplace trend of valuing purpose over paycheque, specifically with the younger generation of employees. PWC reports, however, that where 79% of leaders recognize the importance of purpose to their employees, only 34% are actively including it in their employee engagement plans.

So, how can companies harness the energy to “do more” from current and potential employees? The answer is sustainability.

As more companies embed sustainability into their business, the activities present an opportunity to actively engage employees. Connecting an employee’s passion with community needs and company goals is a key driver for employee engagement. When employees’ efforts begin to play a valuable role in contributing to their workplace’s sustainability initiatives, turnover can decrease and morale and productivity can increase.

Employee engagement in sustainability doesn’t only apply to existing employees. Millennials’ interest in companies with purpose presents an opportunity for employers to leverage their sustainability initiatives as a recruiting tool. Creating opportunities for current and future employees to engage in sustainability programs that they find interesting allows them to be the positive voice for your organization and can advocate on your behalf.

Outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia, has paved the way for engaging employees in sustainability initiatives. Although most companies are not ready or able to have a model like Patagonia, the organization does provide a vision for companies that are striving to include more purpose into the workplace. By bridging work and impact, Patagonia demonstrates how employers can engage their teams in meaningful work both in and out of the office.

The Environmental Internship Program is one of Patagonia’s most successful engagement programs and allows employees two months away from their regular roles to work for the environmental group of their choice while continuing to earn their paycheque and benefits. It is through programs like this employees can use their skills and expertise while also having an impact on the community. The initiative provides purpose, educates employees on the company’s activist roots and allows them to better understand issues that are important to the consumer.

Canadian National (CN) Railway is another example on how to create an employee engagement program that has high impact and links back to the company’s values. The EcoConnexions Employee Engagement program, launched in 2011, in partnership with Earth Day Canada, and is focused on embedding environmental sustainability into the corporate culture. It includes targeted initiatives to reduce energy consumption, reduce waste and improve housekeeping practices at the company’s yards and offices.

“Through the EcoConnexions program, our employees are actively engaged to make a difference,” says Chantale Després director of sustainability, CN. “With the help of dedicated EcoChampions across our network, and our partner Earth Day Canada, we are working collaboratively to share best practices and reduce our environmental impact.”

To-date, the program has reduced energy consumption by 22% at key yards and facilities, diverted over 90,000 metrics tonnes of CN’s operational waste from landfill and completed more than 465,000 green acts at work and home to avoid more than 13 million-kg of carbon.
Similarly, Unilever’s core foundation in sustainability extends beyond their brands and into their employee programs. Sustainability is integrated into early training sessions so employees understand how sustainability fits into their role. Their employee engagement program, Bright Future, includes campaigns such as Dove Day, where 3,000 employees ran self-esteem workshops in 37 countries and World Food Day, where employees volunteered at soup kitchens and food banks delivering 85,000 meals in a day. By giving employees the opportunity to have an impact in an initiative that is personally fulfilling and relates back to their work, a stronger connection is established to purpose in the workplace.

The traditional one-size-fits all model of selecting a single company-wide annual charitable donation won’t cut it anymore. Employees want to see their organization make waves in sustainability initiatives. More specifically, millennials are looking for companies that will embrace their skills and interests in ongoing programs that allow them to make their mark in the world. By fostering a workplace culture rooted in sustainability, you can energize your workforce and foster loyalty.