Session 7 – SEND Series: Integrating Sustainability into Operations

Wendy gained experience as the Sustainability Engagement Manager for a large multi-national engineeing firm with 171 offices.

Wendy gained experience as the Sustainability Engagement Manager for a large multi-national engineeing firm with 171 offices.

By Wendy Firlotte, Employee Engagement for Sustainability Specialist

What do we mean by integrating sustainability?   

When a company begins implementing new sustainability programming, it is often seen as something new and perhaps separate from day to day work.  Many see it as –  one more thing that employees are expected to do in their already busy day.

Yet, the long-term organizational goal should be to deeply embedded sustainability in daily operations.  It ought to be seen as a part of everyone’s job.  This requires the underpinning of sustainability values in overall decision-making including internal operations, services and products for clients in much the same way that Interface has accomplished with its Mission Zero program illustrated in the video below.

A common employee motivation problem is that many employees, at all levels, do not understand the business and personal value of more sustainable operations.  The impacts of sustainability on the bottom line are well documented.  The financial and operational benefits from sustainability include: increased operational efficiency, productivity, employee retention and recruitment, and customer and investor preference. 

This month’s topic of integrating sustainability into operations ties together many of the SEND topics previously discussed and some new topics yet to come.   The following blog will highlight  key considerations for embedding sustainability within an organization.

Supportive Leadership

Embedding sustainability effectively into an organization’s operations requires strong corporate commitment, dedicated support and cooperation of regional and local management.  What are some ways organizations demonstrate this type of support and commitment?

Creating Culture of Sustainability and Innovation – People are more likely to think and behave in a more sustainable manner if it is encouraged throughout the organization, rather than asking employees to change one isolated behavior.  Fostering a workplace culture of sustainability demonstrates a commitment to integrating more sustainable behaviors.  By doing this we create space and attitudes for more sustainably conscious decisions, actions and innovative ideas.

Leadership Support – Leaders and managers at all levels within an organization hold key

Supportive leadership in a company is key.  As CEO of Interface, Ray Anderson led the toward Mission Zero engaging employees around the world

Supportive leadership in a company is key. As CEO of Interface, Ray Anderson led Interface toward Mission Zero engaging employees around the world. He also challenged other companies to do the same.

positions of influence.  Implementing and embedding operational sustainability requires a unique blend of top-down, bottom-up support and cooperation.  Executive leadership plays a critical role in modeling the integration of sustainability.  Senior leadership needs to  communicate and demonstrate to regional and local management that sustainability is a priority for the organization and therefore for local leaders as well.  This aids program implementation tremendously.  A significant barrier to the top-down, bottom-up engagement  can be local leadership, as they are the gatekeepers of what happens locally.

More on this topic is discussed in further detail in a previous SEND post on Participation: overcoming barriers and competing priorities.

Practical Framework

Let’s be honest, embedding organizational sustainability in not an easy or fast process.  How could organizations make the process more focused, manageable and notably smoother? One solution can be to create a relevant and practical implementation framework that provides clear direction and harnesses employee efforts.  This framework needs to be built around common goals and leverage existing resources.

It is important to ensure that employees can directly relate the sustainability strategy to their jobs.

It is important to ensure that employees can directly relate the sustainability strategy to their jobs.

A relevant strategy is directly linked to organizational vision and goals.  It creates a framework for employees to make a clear connection between their daily actions and organizational impacts.  Could your employees read your organization’s sustainability report and clearly understand how they personally contribute?

What makes a strategy effective?  Based on “employee driven” planning, the sustainability strategy maps out clear, focused and collaborative plans of sustainability priorities, methods of implementation, communications, education and engagement, tracking and monitoring,  evaluation and reporting.

No matter what shape your strategy takes, you should constantly ask: 1)How can we leverage existing efforts? and 2) How could organizational sustainability be implemented in the spirit of participation, collaboration and partnerships?

More on this topic is discussed in further detail in a previous SEND post on Planning and Strategy.

Effective Coordination

With strategy in hand, how does an organization go about effectively coordinating and managing implementation ?  What kind of coordination systems could act as the glue to hold it all together?  Below are a few implementation systems to consider.

Office rating systems at Harvard award 1 to 4 leafs based on achievement of sustainability goals.
Office rating systems at Harvard award 1 to 4 leafs based on achievement of sustainability goals.

Office Rating Systems

Office rating systems are a concrete way to ensure employees understand the standard for achieving sustainability goals.  Rating criteria are mapped out and define  what does it take to be a “1 star” (starter office) office versus a “5 star” (champion office)?

More on this topic is discussed further in a previous SEND discussion on Internal benchmarking and office rating systems.

Corporate Coordination Platform

Since the foundation of sustainability is rooted in local context, a coordination platform is required for creating relevance, while meaningfully supporting and empowering local efforts.  Building a network of regional “key multipliers” into the implementation structure provides regional contacts, communication, and tracking and support for local office teams or committees.  This includes a regional representative who regularly communicates, follows up with and supports local offices.

Sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPI)

Having discussed the items above; how does an organization create accountability at the

In some public institutions, sustainability activities are recognized as developmental goals in performance management programs.

In some public institutions, sustainability activities are recognized as developmental goals in performance management programs.

operations level to promote sustainability?  Often employees feel overloaded with daily tasks along with other corporate programs and responsibilities that require attention from local offices. This often translates into situations where employees who do not have a personal interest in sustainability, or feel it is not relevant to their job, do not support it or worse, actively oppose it.  In an ideal scenario, employees at every level should have sustainability related Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in their work performance agreements making sustainability an integrative part of their job responsibilities.

Engaging employees in the process

So how do we as employee engagement professionals approach the process of embedding sustainability into an organization?  The purpose of sustainability education and engagement is to provide an avenue for people to build their knowledge, skills and experience to achieve sustainability visions and goals. Employee engagement programs are the glue that holds the overall sustainability program together.

How do we increase the “stickiness” of this glue to enable integration of sustainability?  We  focus on the spirit of participation, collaboration and partnerships.  Imagine that all internal silos are torn down and that you are completely free to build meaningful partnerships that promote collaborative implementation.  Sounds pretty inspiring eh? It results in a strong interdisciplinary team of sustainability champions who have a personal stake in its success….your company’s success.  And that is where the rubber meets the road- authentic sustainability integration aligns the higher purpose of your organization with that of your employees – you couldn’t ask for a sweeter deal.

If you have any comments, ideas, additions to share please a comment below.  This discussion series is about learning from each other.  Hearing about your experiences is valuable to everyone!  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Wendy Firlotte or Kathryn Cooper.

Other topics already covered in the SEND discussion series may also be relevant to your situation; please take some time to read through previous posts and stay tuned for future posts and related discussions.

Session 1 – Planning and strategy

Session 2 – Addressing scope – Local vs. corporate plans

Session 3 – Communicating with frontline staff

Session 4 – Internal benchmarking & office rating systems

Session 5 – Beyond start-up – Dealing with plateaus and revitalizing programs

Session 6 – Participation – Overcoming barriers and competing priorities

Session 7 – Integrating sustainability into operations (Current post)

Session 8 – Tracking and measurement (October 2013)

Session 9 – Reporting – purpose and content (November 2013)

The Sustainability Engagement Network Discussion (SEND) Series is a network of Sustainability Practitioners using peer learning to accelerate employee engagement for sustainability.  If you are interested in participating in our ongoing sustainability engagement discussions, please contact Kathryn Cooper.

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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