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Our Insights 17 May 2016

Cultivating Purpose: Sustainability Innovation and Employee Engagement

By Rochelle March

Fostering an environment where people can work with purpose by innovating for more sustainable outcomes can help inspire and retain employees. “There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin penned in 1941 in her diary. We may have to admit that the global workplace may indeed be in an ugly place.

Gallup suggests that globally only 13% of employees are engaged in their work and its State of the American Workplace survey shows that 70% of workers are not engaged. In fact, 15.7% are actively disengaged and doing more harm than good at their companies.

The majority of people are compelled to work not by passion but by practicality – by the necessity for food, shelter and security. But even today, when such practicalities are often within reach, employment tends to lack the trifecta of autonomy, mastery and purpose that psychologists and David Pink (author of Drive) believe marks meaningful work. This seems to especially be true among millennials, with only 28.9% engagement vs. their traditionalist (born 1922-1945) peers at 42.2%.

It appears millennials are particularly less likely than other generations to say they “have the opportunity to do what they do best” at work. Considering that more than 90% of millennials want to use their “skills for good” and the fact that the future of work lies in empowering millennial talent (they will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025), these numbers convey rather harrowing news.

Newer generations, however, are not so different from older ones, and after all, are common humans seeking meaning in daily work. Studies show that younger generations are especially keen to work for companies with solid ethical and environmental practices that can offer a sustainable work-life balance. Fostering an environment where employees can work with purpose by innovating for more sustainable outcomes may be key to cultivating the talent and engagement needed to not only get our planet on track to a low-carbon and more equitable future, but also dispel an unpleasant feeling of one’s labour being non-worthwhile.

Engagement Through Sustainability Innovation?

A 2014 survey by IBM found that almost half of genXers and millennials say they would leave their current job for another offering a more innovative environment. In SustainAbility’s Model Behavior II: Strategies to Rewire Business we identified three particular qualities that can improve and foster sustainability innovation, and thus employee engagement:

  1. Leadership from the top;
  2. Comfort with risk; and
  3. Cross-collaboration.

From research and interviews with over 16 innovation experts, these were seen as key aspects, but there are undoubtedly many others.

Leadership from the Top

Several studies have shown that belief in senior leadership is the strongest engagement driver. In an interview with HR specialist Megan Moran at Insperity, a provider of human resource and business performance solutions, she admitted that employee engagement takes time, but it is key to have leadership on board and on the same page. She mentioned, “However leadership views them, employees see that and will work off that energy.”

Leadership sets the tone and helps promote a culture of engagement and innovation. Gallup reiterates this point: employees who are supervised by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged.

Comfort with Risks

A company culture that can allow employees to take risks and experiment is not only something that most employees crave, but it also can help contribute to outside-the- box inventions. This is particularly dominant in entrepreneurial culture where new events and organisations, such as Fuck-Up Nights and FailCon, provide a platform for honouring and learning from others’ failed risks. Even erasing the word ‘failure’ from business lexicon and seeing it simply as a ‘glitch’ or part of the process towards innovation and experimentation can make a difference.

The iconic, if not strictly sustainability-oriented, example is Apple, whose famous tagline ‘Think Different’ framed the launch of the industry-disrupting iPod. At Apple, staying within the norm meant losing out and what companies Sony and Microsoft felt in market share once the iPod began to take off. At the time when Apple released the iPod and its ‘Think Different’ campaign, however, the company only had 90 days of budget left and needed something big to help it survive. While Steve Jobs is well-remembered for his tendency for taking large, often stubborn, risks, this quality was also what propelled Apple into one of the most profitable and well-known tech companies in the world and kept its cult-like following of A-list employees in tow.

Working Together

In order to tackle many of the grand challenges presented by climate change, resource scarcity and global inequality, taking big risks is inevitable, as is learning from each other and working together. Collaboration, whether internally, externally, or both, is a key element in creating a constructive environment for engaged employees that are inspired to innovate. This can take the form of allowing employees time and resources to develop projects of their own, like at LinkedIn or 3M, to leverage their own capacity to stop and reframe important questions rather than make incremental improvements on what already exists.

Sometimes a specialised ‘skunk works’ approach to collaboration reaps more radical innovation, such as that done at Cree, a company that hand-picked an internal team to work in a secure and private location to create an advancedLED bulb. Two years and 20 million bulbs later, Cree is the best-selling LED light in the US.

Many companies, conversely, have experienced much higher levels of engagement and innovation when collaborating outside company walls. Unilever uses hack-a-thons to help drive new thinking, while Tesco has run a number of hack-a- thons including a 48-hour one with the aim of improving health for the long term as part of the company’s campaign on obesity. Meanwhile, companies like GE, GM, Siemens and Unilever are partaking in collaborative and open innovation efforts to help create the next generations of low-carbon technologies.

These efforts not only bring in new ideas, they bring in new people and new excitement within companies that, in turn, increases engagement. Companies that can foster a culture that encourages sustainability innovation are not only likely to lead with a competitive, disruptive edge, but also may be the most successful at retaining and inspiring their workers to feel they are fulfilling their potential through meaningful, beautiful work.

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