Engaging Employees Toward Becoming a Sustainable Enterprise: Why it Works

The way companies approach the integration of sustainability principles into their culture and working practices is as varied as the companies themselves. Top management responsibility and commitments are often regarded as the most important means and indicators for formal sustainability integration. But do they also need to be the starting point? Putting employees in the driver seat from the beginning may offer significant advantages.

Some organisations do not start with a sustainability strategy at the top, but rather as a cross-cutting cultural process. This was the case with Stadtwerke Wuppertal (WSW), a German municipal utility whose human resources (HR) team wanted to hear their employees’ perspectives on sustainability and how they could best align it with current and future sustainability-related processes and projects. The CSCP offered its expertise by accompanying WSW on this journey.

The human resource factor as the driving force

What if a topic that really drives and motivates you is taken up within your company, but you are not part of the process? That’s why employee engagement from early on is key. Sustainability is meaningful, motivating, and contagious. With more and more people willing to be an active part of the sustainable transformation, HR departments increasingly report the need to have a strong sustainability focus that not only attracts new talent, but helps to retain and further develop employees.

Engaging colleagues at different functions and hierarchy levels

With WSW, we started with an application process open to all its employees for an initial workshop series. With a diverse group of about 20 highly-motivated employees, we facilitated three workshops to exchange views and ideas on sustainability. Working with the Golden Circle concept, we developed a proposal for the purpose of the companies’ sustainability journey (the “Why?”), the way to get there (the “How?”), and ideas for concrete measures (the “What?”).

In addition to the workshop series, the CSCP facilitated qualitative interviews with executives to better understand their current perception as well as opportunities and challenges on the road towards more sustainability. Based on these, we conducted a survey with WSW Executives to review the general awareness as well as hot topics to consider when further embedding sustainability into various processes and projects. At the end of the project, we presented a summary report to the WSW Top Management, including our recommendations to strengthen sustainability within the organisation.

Why this is worth the effort?

The results of such open and honest discussions on eye level often lead to practical suggestions from the operational implementation perspective. If taken up by top management, these suggestions can be far better accepted compared to top-down strategies. Also, our surveys and feedback talks regularly reveal that dealing with sustainability issues and their concrete implementation is experienced as motivating and meaningful. And last but not least, there are exciting insights from the participants that are important for embedding cross-cutting issues like sustainability: In everything we do, we need to ask ourselves, is it possible to do it more sustainably? Here, too, the personal insights of colleagues will always carry more weight than messages from external facilitators.

While sustainability strategies are often developed with a strong focus on hot topics (the “What?”), they may lack a more in-depth dialogue on how a motivating and guiding purpose may also include sustainability (the “Why?”) and how the cultural setting and way of working and cooperating may require change and new experiments (the “How?”). Combining this holistic view with employee engagement may not only be a good starting point, but also support organisations with ongoing sustainability strategies in order to review and strengthen internal ownership. With the focus on developing a sustainability culture aimed at empowering employees to become internal and external ambassadors, proactive HR departments have a highly important new role to play.

For further information and to exchange with us on the role of enterprises in accelerating the sustainability transformation, please contact Hanna Perrin.