Businesses across the country are ‘going green’. Mainly, they are starting by reducing energy consumption since that, predictably, also affects the bottom line. This is understandable, because in order for a business to be fully ‘sustainable’, it must make sure that it stays in business and watches its financial bottom line while also taking care of its environmental and social bottom lines. Efforts to reduce energy consumption focus mainly on building infrastructure and mechanical equipment, as they should in order to achieve significant savings. However, many businesses often overlook the fact that their staff should also be educated about the changes that are happening within the organizations and how these changes may impact them.
Studies show that getting staff involved not only improves retention but also decreases energy consumption (and therefore, saves the company money). One recent example is highlighted in the Green Sources September/October 2010 issue. SERA/GBD Architects found that, when designing the Oregon Sustainability Center in downtown Portland, the building could achieve an additional 12% energy savings by engaging occupants in conserving energy. Another example can be seen in IBM’s practices. IBM has been encouraging telecommuting since the 1980’s, and about 40% of its 386,000+ employees now work virtually. In the US alone, this has translated to $100 million in savings for the company. Other companies have implemented internal challenges with prizes ranging from a day off to dinner at an organic restaurant to a monetary prize.
What is interesting, however, is that monetary incentives do not work as well as incentives focused on quality of life or social norms in changingbehavior over the long-term. This can be seen in the fact that telecommuting, which helps improve work/life balance, is a popular incentive at many companies. Food is also another popular incentive that has been found to significantly increase employee attendance at green educational events.
It is also becoming clearer that, just like in high school, if a person feels that everyone else is ‘going green’ in the office, he or she is more likely to change his/her behavior and habits. For instance, a recent study found that a person is more likely to reuse towels at a hotel if the reuse message placed in the room stated that others were participating in this effort as well (vs. just conserving resources). Another example can be seen in the five cent bag law in Washington DC, where use of disposable bags went down from 68 million in one quarter to less than 13 million in the second quarter. This is attributed in part to the cost of paying the fee, but mainly to the fact that shoppers are seen in public with the bags and are accountable to their fellow shoppers.
These studies can translate easily to behavior change in a work environment, where colleagues work together, often in close quarters, on various tasks and projects. Therefore, in order to create long-term behavior change at the office, it is important for companies to look at incentives that improve quality of life and that promote ‘going green’ as a social norm. Monetary incentives are good for short-term behavior change but do not necessarily change habits in the long-term.