For many of those who believed the human impact on climate change was minimal, the Covid pandemic was a game changer. With the world going into lockdown, energy consumption and travel reduced significantly and in a very short period of time we saw air quality improve, especially in highly populated areas. We also saw many other positive improvements in the environment but what perhaps changed the most was people’s relationship with nature. Many of us interacted more with the natural world during national lockdowns, taking time to go for walks and to notice the environment that surrounds us. Not to mention that we couldn't deny the link between our health and that of the planet. The warning signs were impossible to ignore - the sicker the Earth becomes, the harder it will be for us to survive in it.
As a result, many of us returned to the office with the resolve to do more. To prioritise sustainability, especially in the workplace. Just under a third of the UK FTSE 100 also pledged their commitment to Net Zero in March 2021. And yet, nurturing a culture of sustainability in a busy office is challenging. Whilst you can make plans, set out guidelines, introduce schemes and more closely measure your business’s carbon footprint, without changing the mindset of your organisation you will always struggle to get everybody on board.
Therefore, rather than present a list of ways to make your office more eco-friendly, let’s look at a more psychological approach to nurturing a culture of sustainability in a busy office for the long term.
How can we use human nature to cultivate sustainability in the workplace?
Step One - Set Challenges
As a business leader or manager, you probably know how motivating a challenge can be. After all, it’s our nature to learn, develop our abilities and strive to achieve. It’s what has kept humankind evolving. Therefore, turning your environmental goals into challenges can be highly effective.
This also stimulates teamwork and a sense of tribal togetherness that relies on everyone playing their part to meet company-wide goals. In terms of setting challenges, it’s important to select ones that will both be impactful and achievable. Reaching for carbon zero in 6 months, for instance, may be setting yourself up for failure.
So, for this article, let’s use an example of a challenge that could be set to change workplace behaviour. You may set multiple goals in your steps to nurture a culture of sustainability in your office but, for this example, we’ll focus on one - Let’s imagine a scenario where you set a challenge for your office (or multiple offices) to reduce paper waste by 50% in one year.
Step Two - Don’t Be A Downer
Almost every motivational speaker, psychologist, sociologist and educator will tell you that human beings are not motivated by fear. In fact, fear paralyses us. Yes, there are stories of a rush of adrenaline that has enabled ordinary people to do extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances but this tends to be a short-term response. Over time, fear as a key driver is generally proven to be ineffective. Why? Because human nature is to run or hide when we are afraid - and for good reason - it’s a highly logical approach to survival. Yet, in schools, in
business and even in the ways we govern ourselves, it is still common to use fear as a motivator.
Therefore, when it comes to nurturing a culture of sustainability in a busy office it may be tempting to plaster pictures of floods, famine and apocalypse all over the place. You would think that showcasing the impact of climate change or pointing to statistics on global warming would encourage more sustainable practices and it may do, for a short period of time. Yet, how many smokers do you know who have quit the habit after reading the warning on the cigarette packet?
A positive approach is far more likely to see employees getting on board with eco-friendly policies you are trying to implement.
Step Three - Highlight The Impact
Few people who don’t lead sustainable lifestyles do so because they don’t care. The most common reasons for not being more environmentally friendly are lack of time or lack of knowledge. Yet, many will concede that if they really believed making changes in their behaviours would make a real difference to the wellbeing of the planet, then they would take the time and make more effort. This suggests the main barrier is the denial of, or disillusionment with, the difference we can make as individuals.
Of course, there is some logic in this. With so many huge and seemingly unstoppable polluters and destroyers of our environment, it can feel unfair to be asked to make changes in our lives that are a drop in the ocean in comparison.
However, slowing down climate change will likely be achieved by a ‘ripple effect’ created by individuals, like you, me, our friends, families and colleagues. In one way this is inspiring but, in another, it works against our nature because many of us are motivated by feeling that we are personally making a significant difference.
As pointed out in step one, a positive approach to the challenges you set is also important. Therefore, to nurture a culture of sustainability in the workplace, make sure you amplify the impact of our carbon-reducing pursuits, rather than the impact of climate change itself.
To take our example challenge of reducing paper waste in the office you would not then, for instance, put up a sign above the printer that reads, ‘using paper contributes to deforestation’.
Instead, you would highlight the positive effect that specific action can/will have. For instance, ‘when we print double-sided we are reducing deforestation by 50%’.
Step Four - Be Instructional
Promoting sustainability is important but you cannot assume that employees will know what they need to do to put this into action. Therefore, don’t neglect to provide specific instructions on how to make the office more sustainable.
Let’s look at our example of promoting double-sided printing to reduce paper waste in a busy office. Now you have set the challenge and presented one possible solution (you'll likely need more) of double-sided printing, but does everybody in the office know how to print double-sided?
You need to make it really easy for colleagues to implement the changes needed to meet the challenge because generally, people in the office will not have a lot of free time to make inquiries.
Step Five - Be Consistent And Lead By Example
It seems obvious that anybody leading change should be setting an example themselves. However, in a company, this extends through to business practices including supply chains, how products or services are delivered and who the company works with.
Since early civilisation, we have worked together to form productive societies. These have relied on everybody playing their part and sharing and supporting common goals. We have, therefore, developed a penchant for fairness. This means we become frustrated when it seems our leaders are not making a contribution or holding themselves to the same standards. Even worse when their actions actively work against the goal.
Not only can this fuel resentment but it can also be demotivating, making nurturing a culture of sustainability in a busy office extremely difficult.
Therefore, before implementing any policies or setting any goals for improving sustainability in the workplace, it’s worth looking at the effect of business operations on the environment. Whilst some may be unavoidable, where improvements can be made this should be a priority for the organisation’s leaders, before requesting employees change their habits.
Not only is it encouraging to see an organisation, as a body, take positive action on reducing its carbon footprint, but it can even attract more eco-conscious employees to the business. A company that implements its values in its business practices may be seen as a more appealing brand, client and/or employer.
So, if we again take our above example goal of reducing paper waste, then this is likely to be far less effective if the organisation itself is producing products that contain palm oil that's not sustainably sourced. Meaning, the business itself is likely contributing to deforestation and actively harming the cause. Setting a goal for employees to reduce waste paper may then come over as hypocritical and can have a demotivating effect on others' commitment to the company’s sustainability goals.
Fundamentally, there needs to be harmony between the values of the business itself, the company leaders and the employees. Only this way can you truly nurture a culture of sustainability in a busy office.
Changing Mindset Around Sustainability In The Workplace
Most people want to protect the planet but it’s incredibly daunting and it can seem like there are no perfect solutions. So, all too often, we end up doing very little.
Whilst office rules are generally met with eye-rolling, having a culture of sustainability supported by goals and direction can have many positive effects and it is generally welcomed by employees. The relationship shared between sustainability and wellness, means increasing eco-awareness can encourage a focus on wellbeing and, because it is a shared venture, it can also promote colleague camaraderie. However, to truly implement eco-friendly practices, it’s essential that you first nurture a culture of sustainability and this can only be done through a shared and positive mindset. Therefore, we must not only ask what can be done but how we can motivate and support one another in doing so. That being, here a few simple ideas for changing mindset around sustainability in a busy office:
- Find ways for employees to spend more time in nature, such as walking meetings outdoors or finding opportunities for them to participate in community garden projects.
- Send updates about sustainable practices and eco challenges to keep everyone informed and motivated.
- Make your office look like a place that appreciates nature by having plants in the workplace.
- Include employees in discussions and decision-making around improving workplace sustainability.
- Keep employees informed about what you, as a company, are doing to reduce your carbon footprint.
- Feed sustainability into other practices such as corporate gifting, charitable endeavours and company events.
- Ensure you measure your progress so you can keep track of and celebrate successes.