Engaging employees with a purpose
5th May 2021
Among the many issues thrown into stark reality by the coronavirus pandemic, one stands out for business – the importance of purpose.
Leaders and businesses with a sense of purpose seem more relevant now. Companies and employees that share a common purpose are also more effective. And they’re needed more than ever as we face up to our most formidable challenges – from the climate crisis and economic recovery to social exclusion and inequality, and deteriorating mental health arising from the pressures of the last year.
The higher purpose I have in mind is sustainability. As well as protecting the environment, sustainability has social and economic dimensions. It encompasses the wellbeing of your people, the social and economic health of local communities, and the long-term viability of the business itself. This triple bottom line of planet, people and profit is also the key to employee engagement and business success.
An opportunity to engage
Businesses need to be as alive to the beliefs and priorities of today’s workforce as they are to market trends and customer tastes. A recent poll of employers by Aon, the insurance-to-health services group, found that 94% of employers believe their employees’ expectations of the work experience are changing. Given the timing, it is not surprising that employers ranked agile and home working, and awareness of mental health as top priorities – followed by diversity and parental leave.
The researchers expressed surprise that more than half of employers (54%) also saw a need for ‘clear and positive environmental and sustainability policies’. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that this was the first time this factor was included in the survey.
Some employers, perhaps more than policymakers, are lagging behind growing public opinion, when it comes to concern for the environment – whether it’s the global threat of the climate crisis or the local experience of pollution, litter and disappearing garden birds and pollinators.
However, from a business perspective, what they are failing to realise is that environmental responsibility is not only the right thing, ethically, it is a highly effective way of attracting, engaging and retaining the best talent – for the good of the business.
The need for engagement is pressing. Over the years, surveys of employee opinion have shown abysmally low levels of engagement. A Gallup poll in 2018 indicated that just one in three US workers feel committed to their work, and worldwide that dropped to around one in eight. A 2021 study found that only a fifth (21%) of employees felt they were ‘very engaged’ at work. And worryingly, nearly two fifths (37%) said they felt less engaged now compared than before the pandemic.
Employers need to realise that new and potential recruits expect action on the environment. As long ago as 2017 a study of Generation Z – born on the cusp of and up to a decade after the millennium – believed that companies should address urgent environmental issues. This group, who make up about a quarter of today’s workforce, consider the social purpose of an employer when choosing where to work. Blue Planet II, activists such as Greta Thunberg and mounting concern over the climate crisis can only have intensified and spread those expectations.
Environmental sustainability is at last becoming a priority as more and more companies commit to carbon neutrality – in line with the UK’s 2050 net zero target. And they are looking to their supply chains to do the same.
The road to net zero
Making the changes needed to advance sustainability, let alone achieve net zero, is tough but crucial. It takes commitment from the top but also engagement at every level. Depending on your business and its culture, how you go about engaging your people may be different.
At SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, passion for the environment is a core value. So, we may be preaching sustainability to the converted, but we too have to walk the talk, reaffirm our values, and continue reinforcing the commitment if we’re to sustain progress. We have designated leads for both sustainability and social value (the wider community benefits we can generate from our work, such as volunteering and employee fundraising for charities).
The first step on this path is to calculate the carbon footprint of your business as a benchmark for measuring future progress. Given the nature of our business, SUEZ has the in-house expertise to do this. Measuring carbon footprints is a complex task, but there are external consultants who can advise you on methodology, and on environmental strategy.
Every major business and organisation that has not yet done so, needs to plan their low-carbon transition now. If legislation does not yet demand it, your clients – like prospective employees – soon will.
Last year, at the instigation of our new CEO in the UK, we have set up a network of Sustainability Champions, one covering each of our 300-plus locations. These are ambassadors for sustainability who – in a similar vein to our health and safety representatives – promote our ten sustainability principles, share ideas, engage with colleagues, and help create sustainability action plans for their site(s). When the plan is agreed with the location’s manager, the champion sees it through.
To help keep track of these actions we’ve introduced an app for logging activities and environmental improvements. Whether it’s a beach clean or school visit, community volunteering or charitable fundraising, tree planting or setting up beehives on site, we record this information and promote good practice across the company. These details feed into our sustainability reporting and/or our social profit calculator.
Two other ways to encourage engagement on sustainability are worth a mention: pay and benefits. Our extensive benefits package now promotes the cycle-to-work scheme and electric company cars. And our performance-related bonus scheme, which covers graded staff at all levels, includes a sustainability element.
We see sustainability as a common cause that engages and motivates our people, and addresses the priorities of our clients and customers.
There has never been a better time or more urgent need for business leaders, after our nation’s COVID ordeal, to inspire that sense of shared purpose with employees as together we strive for environmental sustainability and a green recovery.