The Impact of Workplace Initiatives on Low Carbon Behaviours

This research, commissioned jointly by the Scottish Government, Defra and the 2020 Climate Group, investigates ‘what works’ in delivering low-carbon behavioural initiatives in the workplace.



1.1 There is limited guidance available to help workplaces support employees to adopt low-carbon behaviours and the evidence on effective interventions is not robust. This research, commissioned jointly by the Scottish Government, Defra and the 2020 Climate Group in June 2011, seeks to address this gap by investigating 'what works' in delivering low-carbon behavioural initiatives in the workplace. The outputs from the research include a full report, a good practice guide for employers, and a separate report on the 10 case studies that formed the main body of the research. These outputs should be of interest to all types of employer, because they set out innovative examples of genuine impact in everyday work situations and provide clear insights on how to make low-carbon initiatives successful.

Research aims

1.2 In brief, the aims of the research were to:

  • Explore the extent of workplace activity to encourage low-carbon behaviours amongst staff
  • Identify 'what works' for behavioural programmes, and what potential impacts might be
  • Explore why interventions work and how they should be delivered for maximum impact
  • Identify any evidence on the impact of work-based schemes on employee behaviour outside the workplace.

Research methods

1.3 The research used a multi-method approach, comprising a literature review to map the nature and extent of low-carbon activity involving staff, 27 interviews with practitioners (largely in so-called 'intermediary' organisations) to develop initial insights into what works, and ten detailed case studies in workplaces, focused on interviews with managers and employees, looking at what works in actual working contexts. The fieldwork took place in the latter six months of 2011.

1.4 To help explain the detail of the low-carbon initiatives being explored, a theoretical framework was developed. This is based on previous research for the Scottish Government (Southerton et al., 2011) which identified Individual, Social and Material factors that affect the degree to which behavioural change is embedded and sustainable. These factors can be defined as follows:

  • Individual factors concern individual and personal motivations and barriers to change;
  • Social factors concern influences which act on people when operating in groups (social norms, cultural conventions, and shared understandings);
  • Material factors concern infrastructure, products, objects, technology or other physical aspects of the built environment in which people live and work. The material can also cover the 'softer infrastructure' of policies and frameworks.

1.5 The key point about this classification framework is that behavioural interventions tend to be most successful when they consider the three contexts together, at the same time: so, not simply focusing on trying to change attitudes or just installing new infrastructure. In other words, the aim of any intervention should be to take an ambitious, joined up approach that raises awareness and improves understanding with individuals, builds social norms around low-carbon working, and supports staff with the equipment and tools they need, backed up with clear and consistent policies.

1.6 Those workplaces which adopt a 'whole organisation approach' to reducing carbon are best placed to make big savings: these are the ones which work at the individual, social and material level, and which integrate the activities by leading with staff engagement.

The state of the evidence base on 'what works'

1.7 The evidence base on low-carbon behavioural activities in the workplace is not well developed. This reflects a lack of robust evaluation of low-carbon initiatives and difficulties in establishing the impacts on behaviour and on carbon emissions, combined with a lack of research which compares the relative effectiveness of different projects and techniques. It also reflects the emphasis of most workplace activity - relating to infrastructural changes, technology investment, and supply chain efficiencies, rather than focusing on what staff actually do.

Learning points from the research

1.8 Organisations seem to find it easier when starting off to focus on energy consumption and recycling/waste. It is more unusual to find organisations seeking to shape transport behaviours, particularly as a starter activity, simply because transport behaviours are more difficult to change. We also found few strong food examples, largely because many workplaces do not provide significant catering services for their staff. Energy saving measures are relatively easy to take action on, while workplace travel planning for individuals is more complicated to implement but has a bigger impact on carbon emissions.

1.9 There are considerable opportunities to generate wider staff engagement: practitioners estimated that between 20-50% of staff take part in voluntary low carbon activities at work.

1.10 Tough policies that seek to discourage and prohibit less sustainable behaviours, including mandatory recycling and limiting travel options, do also seem to have strong impacts. However, these seemed to be rarely mentioned in the literature.

1.11 There is a clear view from employers who are already closely involved in these issues that cutting carbon emissions has significant knock-on benefits, including building organisational reputation, being seen as a pro-environmental brand, improving sales/customer retention, recruiting and retaining high quality staff, reducing operating costs and meeting regulatory requirements.

1.12 There are some limited examples of where behaviours learned at work do 'spill over' to home and leisure activities, especially in recycling and travel behaviours, once these become routine. Crucially, exposure to environmental education as part of low-carbon initiatives seemed a key driver of this spill-over.

1.13 Organisation size should not be regarded as a barrier to low-carbon initiatives. Case studies undertaken in small firms show that they can implement far-reaching change by taking a pragmatic approach to implementation. This involves some resource investment, but it need not be extensive. Pragmatic motivations for cost reduction can sit comfortably alongside pro-environmental objectives.

Critical success factors for influencing behaviours via low-carbon initiatives

1.14 The research has developed a set of critical success factors for influencing behaviours as part of low-carbon initiatives at work. These are set out below.

Starting Off

1.15 Creating positive perceptions of costs and benefits for employees was an important factor in gaining initial interest in initiatives, usually expressed in terms of personal time and monetary costs or savings.

1.16 Organisations need to be careful to minimise initial perceptions of inconvenience, as employees often became less concerned as they were accustomed to new routines. This requires developing an understanding of the values, beliefs and attitudes of workers and the likely impact of new initiatives on them in as much detail as possible before designing or implementing a low-carbon initiative, especially where participation is voluntary.

1.17 Initiatives were more successful in organisations which were seeking to embed shared values about the importance of environmental sustainability. This created a sense of shared purpose and meaning for employees and managers. This was usually linked to organisational strategy, internal and external brand and market position as a source of competitive advantage, and undertaken through an engaging staff education programme. Where less extensive education programmes were in place, corporate values sometimes failed to translate meaningfully down to front line employees.

1.18 Gaining access to expertise, especially if low carbon management is a new area of organisational activity, can be critical, particularly in the early stages of deciding what to do and how to do it. Helpful sources of advice include three different types of network: internal staff networks; supply chain or client networks; independent advisory bodies with expertise on specific issues such as calculating carbon emissions.

Staff who lead and influence

1.19 Involving staff in low-carbon initiatives, in particular through seeking and implementing employee suggestions is critically important in any organisation. Providing feedback on the impact of their suggestions and participation is important to sustain engagement and motivation.

1.20 Providing information, advice and guidance for employees is important and the best of method of communicating is face-to-face by peers and line managers, backed up with online resources.

1.21 Consulting staff in advance of change helps to secure staff support for initiatives by offering all colleagues a stake in the project and reducing the likelihood of opposition. It also has a substantive function in generating ideas for making proposed initiatives successful and gathering suggestions for new ones.

1.22 The active and visible participation of senior managers in any low-carbon activity is essential.

1.23 Organisations benefit from using multiple influencers, including managers responsible for buildings and energy use, line managers, senior managers and peer champions and networks. These influencers can help reshape social norms and organisational cultures. The number of multiple influencers needed is usually proportionate to the size of the organisation and is therefore more important in larger companies.

1.24 Setting up 'green teams' which give staff the chance to devise and implement activities, and to learn from the results, is helpful. These kinds of shared activity help change underlying assumptions about how workplaces operate. Using informal peer champions to lead by example and spread norms of behaviour can be a helpful alternative to a team-based approach.

1.25 Influencers are most successful where they help to establish employee perceptions of low-carbon behaviours as being part of their jobs, rather than optional extras, and in making low-carbon behaviours aspirational.

1.26 In some organisations, it was surprising that HR staff were not involved in the design and implementation of projects, especially where these involved changes to policies affecting employees. Organisations may benefit from greater use of HR expertise to help them influence staff behaviour.

Providing feedback and equipment

1.27 Organisations should show how employees can and do influence outcomes by sharing performance feedback. This works best when it is tailored to the appropriate level of team, department or work group.

1.28 Providing supporting infrastructure and equipment is essential both to help provide feedback (e.g. via energy monitors) and also to make it easy for staff to take part in low carbon initiatives (e.g. bike locks, racks and showers for cyclists commuting to work).

Frameworks and policies

1.29 Using formal incentive schemes can help to develop and strengthen positive norms, where they fit organisational cultures. Framing targets at a local level can help make them appear less daunting and more meaningful to employees.

1.30 Organisational frameworks and policies are important tools in shaping travel and recycling behaviours. Shaping organisational expectations with policies on particular behaviours can be effective where change is most challenging, particularly in relation to travel behaviours. Such policies are more effective when supported by social factors, including shared values and a consultative organisational culture to convince employees of the need for change. Major change such as choice of commuting methods is easier when it is regarded as a responsibility which organisations and workers share together, rather than a matter of individual choice.

1.31 Organisations need to think carefully about balancing 'carrot and stick' approaches in the overall order of change when implementing low-carbon initiatives. Where organisations have begun the change process with 'sticks', the evidence suggests that staff may be less likely to engage in voluntary activities subsequently. This could be due to staff forming negative perceptions of how low-carbon initiatives affect them. Organisations may therefore want to consider beginning low-carbon management approaches with initiatives that will be popular with staff.

Time and 'Moments of change'

1.32 Making low-carbon activities part of organisational routines and allocating time within the working day to enable employees to take part helps to foster staff participation. It created a sense of shared responsibility between organisations to provide time for employees to get involved and individuals to contribute their effort and ideas.

1.33 Major organisational changes such as relocation, mergers and expansion into new products/services provided opportunities for transformative moments of change. Collaborating with other employers to negotiate changes to public transport provision where required is also a useful tactic in gaining support.

Conclusions for best practice

1.34 This research has illustrated how using a combination of educational activities, changes in organisational policies and investments in infrastructure can foster new organisational values which lead to sustained behavioural change and employee participation in low-carbon management activities. Addressing individual, social and material factors jointly, in a coherent and holistic programme, is essential to foster lasting change.

1.35 The case study evidence suggests that the most important factors in making low carbon initiatives successful are building shared individual and organisational values through individual and group-based staff involvement combined with senior management commitment.

1.36 This does not mean that organisations need to make large initial investments in time and money. Simple changes to reduce waste and save energy can be made quickly and easily and opportunities provided by major business change, such as relocation, financial challenges or expansion of products and services, can provide catalysts for wider change which benefit both the organisation and the environment.


Email: Jonathan Waite

Back to top