Employee Engagement: This Time It's Serious

Two Steps Forward

Employee Engagement: This Time It's Serious

It's been easy to pooh-pooh employee engagement as a soft, feel-good endeavor. You know: an annual Earth Day fair, a company campaign to recycle paper or use reusable mugs, or to carpool or take public transportation or bike whenever possible. Hardly the stuff from which profits and productivity are derived. And so employee engagement has been thought of as a nice-to-do activity to demonstrate a company's concern, if not commitment, for the environment.

That's changing. Employee engagement around environmental sustainability hasn't necessarily reached the status of, say, diversity or work-life balance, but it is rising in importance. Today, a growing number of companies are finding direct and indirect business value in actively engaging employees, from cost savings to new ideas to attracting and retaining the best and brightest.

I've been watching this unfold for a decade or so, and we've been covering it regularly on GreenBiz.com. But employee engagement's importance was underscored by a report just released by the National Environmental Education Foundation in partnership with GreenBiz.com.

NEEF, as it's known, has been running a roundtable of corporate and nonprofit experts, focusing on understanding trends and best practices in employee engagement around environmental sustainability. The report (download - PDF) provides more evidence that employee engagement has become a strategic asset for companies seeking to align environmental responsibility with business success, and shows how companies such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, PwC, Cisco Systems, eBay and BT Group plc, are creating innovative tools for employee engagement, including forming green teams, using Twitter and other social media, and offering awards and incentives.

The report also includes the results of a survey completed recently by my colleague, John Davies, GreenBiz's senior analyst, who runs the GreenBiz Executive Network as well as our 3,000-member Intelligence Panel, two key ways we track green business trends and attitudes. The survey -- of 1,183 respondents -- closely tracked a similar survey done by NEEF in 2008, allowing us to show progress over time.

Among other things, the 2011 survey found that environmental and sustainability (E&S) knowledge both is valued by companies and is expected to increase in importance as a hiring factor. Currently, 65 percent of respondents said they valued job candidates' E&S knowledge, but the percentage of companies placing at least some value on E&S knowledge is higher at small companies (84 percent) than at medium (55 percent) or large (54 percent) companies.

Davies' research also found that a high percentage (68 percent) of respondents think the value of job candidates' E&S knowledge will increase in importance as a hiring factor within the next five years, with 75 percent of small, 65 percent of medium and 62 percent of large company respondents agreeing with that prediction. Virtually no respondents expect it to decrease.

Moreover, says Davies, "Companies not only are anticipating that the value of E&S knowledge will increase, they are doing something about it. For example, 78 percent of companies educate employees about corporate E&S goals. More than half (55 percent) of the respondents think their company has an advanced or very advanced E&S education program."

Among small company respondents, 72 percent said their company has an advanced or very advanced E&S education program, compared with 44 percent and 45 percent of medium and large companies, respectively.

What about companies that aren't yet on board? According to the GreenBiz survey, companies lacking an E&S education program are likely to adopt one soon. Some 58 percent of the respondents whose companies have no program said their company would begin educating employees within the next two years (including 13 percent of small, 25 percent of medium and 12 percent of large company respondents).

This is 9 percentage points higher than in 2008 -- an indication that E&S education is growing in important to large and small companies, even during economically challenging times. Only about 8 percent of respondents don't expect to start a program, citing as reasons competing priorities, lack of time. and lack of clearly defined goals.

These are highly encouraging numbers, which we'll continue to track as part of a new partnership between NEEF and GreenBiz Group on employee engagement. (As part of the partnership, GreenBiz Group is housing the E&S education work of NEEF, along with our own articles, columns, and research, in a new section of GreenBiz.com dedicated to the topic.)

There remains great deal of work to be done, such as aggregating and disseminating best ideas and practices, and to spread them widely. Davies' and NEEF's research, while they show E&S employee engagement growing, don't necessarily reflect the breadth and depth it has achieved inside companies. I suspect that in most companies, E&S employee engagement still amounts to random acts of greenness.

The brass ring of all this, of course, are concrete metrics that show that E&S employee engagement motivates, inspires, attracts, retains, and provides all the other benefits its adherents claim. Solid measurement methodologies remain scarce and devising them has proved challenging, a state of affairs that needs to change if employee engagement is to realize its full potential, for employers and employees alike.

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