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Publication - Research and analysis

The Impact of Workplace Initiatives on Low Carbon Behaviours

Published: 23 Mar 2012
ISBN:
9781780457581

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.

95 page PDF

873.5 kB

95 page PDF

873.5 kB

Contents
The Impact of Workplace Initiatives on Low Carbon Behaviours
6 CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

95 page PDF

873.5 kB

6 CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

OVERVIEW

  • Organisation size should not be regarded as a barrier to low carbon management and encouraging staff participation in low carbon initiatives. The case studies undertaken in small firms show that they are capable of implementing far-reaching change by taking a pragmatic approach to implementation.
  • There is a need to achieve a balance between the individual, social and material factors to support low carbon initiatives, as all three are mutually reinforcing.
  • The research indicates however that there is a bias towards individual-level factors, which leads organisations to rely on information-giving and some incentives to make the case for behaviour change in a rational way.
  • 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.
  • The most successful projects involved an effort to join up different kinds of low carbon activities. They also made an effort to build staff involvement into the process of change at the earliest possible stage.
  • Specific circumstances can act as 'windows of opportunity' for major transformational change in organisations. These include office relocations, merger/acquisition, expansion into new products/services, review of organisational strategy, any points of major investment, recruitment of new senior staff, and financial challenges.

Introduction

6.1 This study has reviewed the types of initiatives undertaken by organisations to promote low carbon behaviours among their staff and analysed the factors that help schemes to succeed, as well as offering suggestions for how barriers might be overcome. This chapter presents an overview of the findings from the research.

6.2 The literature review and expert interviews confirmed that the current emphasis in available guidance and advice for businesses relates mostly to infrastructural changes, technology investment, and supply chain efficiencies. This appears to reflect the balance of activity in workplaces; in seeking suitable case study organisations, a number of those which were highlighted as sites of good practice had not undertaken activities which focused on staff behaviours. However, case studies we selected were relatively advanced in their low carbon activities and some had been developing environmental management strategies over a number of years.

Types of activity undertaken

6.3 Common initiatives pursued by organisations relate to the subjects of recycling/waste reduction and reducing energy consumption. Projects to alter transport behaviours and food consumption are less common because transport behaviours are more difficult to change and many workplaces do not provide significant catering services for their staff. Wider evidence suggests that much organisational activity shows a focus on reducing the impacts of negative behaviours rather than stopping them entirely, but the case studies show some examples of workplaces which have sought to discourage and prohibit negative behaviours through tough policies including mandatory recycling and restrictions on travel methods.

Why organisations engage in low carbon initiatives

6.4 Senior managers have significant influence in deciding whether to adopt low carbon initiatives and are crucial to mobilising resources to support initiatives. The main factors that motivate them include a mixture of:

  • pressures for better environmental management from customers,
  • competitors already taking action,
  • an adverse economic climate creating concerns about costs of energy and building maintenance, and
  • personal beliefs and values about the importance of reducing carbon emissions.

6.5 Pressures that influence the type of activity or initiatives being adopted vary between sectors according to customer perceptions of how energy-intensive a sector is and its main sources of carbon emissions. Organisation size should not be regarded as a barrier to low carbon management and encouraging staff participation in low carbon initiatives. The case studies undertaken in small firms show that they are capable of implementing far-reaching change by taking a pragmatic approach to implementation. This involves some resource investment, but it need not be extensive. Dual motivations were found in some organisations where pragmatic motivations for cost reduction sat comfortably alongside pro-environmental objectives.

What works and doesn't work (and why)

6.6 The literature reviewed for this report identified the limited nature of the evidence base on pro-environmental behaviour in a specific workplace context. As the evidence lacked a sound and consistent underpinning theoretical framework to enable comparisons between initiatives, the report has made steps to fill that space by developing a framework based on individual, social and material factors affecting the success of low carbon initiatives. Analysing the initiatives through the lens of this framework shows a number of key learning points. The most significant of these includes the need to achieve a balance between the individual, social and material factors to support low carbon initiatives, as all three are mutually reinforcing

6.7 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. An array of factors are helpful in implementing change including using key influencers to lead behaviour change by example, providing regular feedback on the impact of schemes, making the most of technology as a visual symbol of change, using key moments of change to review organisational practices, and creating flexibility in schedules and routines to enable staff to contribute.

6.8 The application of the Individual/ Social/ Material framework in this study has shown that different factors are relevant for different behaviours - and this may also explain why some behaviours are more commonly tackled than others. Thus recycling is easy to attempt as the simple provision of recycling bins ('Materials') tends to achieve quick results. Energy tends to involve more 'Social' approaches, grounded in awareness raising and the activation of positive norms, and group dynamics. By contrast, transport behaviours seem to require action on all three levels at once: changing the infrastructure, building new norms, and providing incentives or penalties, alongside more flexibility to shift the cost/benefit calculations people have made in their travel choices. Finally, transport behaviours are often deeply embedded in wider societal routines such as those for childcare arrangements, and such 'travel habits' can be hard to alter.

6.9 Having identified these differences by type of behaviour, it is notable that most of the case study projects involve attempts to influence employees using all three types of factor. Those activities that work best arguably involve more balanced attention across all three factors (individual, social and material). Some examples include the approach adopted by the Commercial Group, Wiles Greenworld and Halcrow which are holistic programmes of change encompassing a range of subject areas and techniques to achieve behaviour change. In general, there is still a bias towards individual-level factors, which leads organisations to rely on information-giving and some incentives to make the case for behaviour change in a rational way. This is perhaps unsurprising in projects which have been selected precisely because they focus on the role of employees as individuals. But it is also notable that approaches which engage staff in groups, and make use of champions, thus working through 'Social' factors, are particularly prevalent among the case studies.

6.10 Beyond incorporating multiple factors, the most successful projects involved an effort to join up different kinds of activity in workplaces, mainly by communicating plans early and engaging staff in all preparations and changes, even those which primarily involve changes at the 'Material' level. Employee engagement through developing shared values and processes of employee involvement is the most dominant critical success factor identified in this study. Employee involvement is vital for overcoming sources of potential resistance, for instance in terms of gaining support for new policies among staff and managers e.g. when changing work locations or transport policies. But it also has a positive function in spreading new norms around the organisation and generating further ideas for change, as is often the work of champions in large organisations. Without involving staff, there is a risk that low carbon initiatives are confined to 'islands of excellence' within organisations, or run the risk of not being understood and accepted. This report, therefore, recommends that organisations build staff involvement mechanisms as early as possible into their process of adopting low carbon management principles. This finding is particularly important for the majority of organisations who have so far only made infrastructure or technological changes. In some organisations, it was challenging to make connections between higher level corporate strategies which contained a commitment to principles of sustainability or environmental management, and employee understanding of how values played out and affected their daily work and experience of the organisation. Making these links and translating broad principles, such as what it means to be a low carbon organisation for employees, is essential for organisations that wish to make the most sustained and profound changes.

6.11 Staff engagement does not merely serve the purpose of communicating the decisions and actions agreed by managers. Another key success factor involves 'education and fun'. If staff are engaged early, and given the chance to develop their ideas, and to own the low carbon agenda, then the potential for diverse and lasting activities is greater. Several case study organisations include mechanisms for assembling staff into 'green teams', giving them the chance to devise and implement activities, and to learn from the results. Such approaches are consistent with the literature on organisational change, particularly that relating to organisations as learning systems. This work shows that until staff come together, discuss actions and implement them, the underlying assumptions on which they operate in the workplace will not be revealed. Without such a process, the dominant organisational culture will not be understood, and cannot be changed.

6.12 This report argues that culture change should be the ultimate aim for low carbon activity in the workplace, as without it, only incremental improvements to current practice can be achieved. The most advanced practice is dependent on transformational change which permeates the entire organisation, its vision/mission and internal and external brand. Some organisations tend to run their low carbon activities as separate schemes or projects depending on subject areas. In some ways this is helpful because the initiatives may require specialist leadership or expertise from staff in particular roles. Additionally, groups led by staff should have as much influence as possible over the subject matter and scope of opportunity for innovation. However, there are big opportunities for organisations to integrate their projects and create a greater sense of the cumulative impact of their initiatives to help develop a broader sense of meaning and identity about what it is to be a low carbon workplace.

6.13 There are examples among the case study projects of organisations where low carbon activity is associated with transformational change. In these projects, there is a combination of balanced emphasis on all three sets of individual, social and material factors, and also high levels of staff involvement, leading to staff engagement. However, specific circumstances are also highlighted as 'windows of opportunity' for transformational change. These might include office relocations, merger/acquisition, expansion into new products/services, review of organisational strategy, any points of major investment, recruitment of new senior staff, and financial challenges. At such moments, factors and influences at all three levels are subject to change, and reconfiguration of a wide range of arrangements is possible. For instance, when all staff have new journeys to work, new routines can be developed. Such examples provide lessons on how to change habits in fields where the impacts on carbon emissions can be most extensive, and also illustrate the focus on commuting as what could be called a boundary case. Commuting can be regarded as a private, or individual lifestyle, behaviour - not an organisational one. But moving offices draws attention to the pivotal role of the business in dictating the place of work; sharing responsibility for the journey, including its carbon impacts, seems both appropriate and fair. In rearranging the practice of commuting, the boundaries between 'at home' and 'at work' behaviours are blurred, and present an opportunity for changing practices and reducing carbon emissions. This provides a good example of significant transformational change. Incremental changes, such as fuel efficient driving or recycling, are often on a smaller scale, and operate within existing arrangements. They do not necessarily involve extensive material changes and can take place without attitudinal change on the part of staff, especially if they are based more on a cost saving rationale than on reducing carbon emissions.

6.14 The most profound aspect of change thrown up by the case studies is the practice of home- or flexi-working. Four new 'profiles' for different working styles of fixed, home, flexible and mobile were implemented in the case of Aberdeenshire Council. While the scheme was triggered by the need to rationalise office buildings and to cut costs, it has resulted in substantial carbon savings. Success factors across all three levels are involved; in some cases, the entire experience of work is rearranged including location(s), hours, relationships with colleagues and managers and ICT systems. This amounts to deep change for individuals and the institution involved. This in turn presents a huge opportunity for low carbon management, as low carbon principles can be built into these new arrangements from the start, not bolted on. This is not simply a case of removing barriers to change from longstanding arrangements (e.g. the inefficiency or location of buildings), but the positive opportunity to build new institutions and arrangements, with resource efficiencies and carbon efficiencies at the middle. As flexible working becomes more widespread, there are opportunities to link it to low carbon management more explicitly and to build partnerships to exploit these opportunities.

Final thoughts

6.15 After presenting the research evidence, there is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of workplace-based low carbon activity for meeting national carbon targets and objectives. Opportunities illustrated in the case studies enable us to be optimistic about the possibilities for widespread and lasting change in workplace behaviours. 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. These also have the potential to influence behaviour beyond the workplace, and this is most potent where organisations have engaged employees in value-based change. In addition some organisations present examples of activities and circumstances which disrupt current working arrangements, and begin to blur the boundaries between home and work. While this may present a challenge to current lifestyles in terms of achieving a positive 'work-life balance' for employees, so it also represents an opportunity for those who are interested in reducing individuals' environmental impacts. Such deep change provides a shortcut around a hearts and minds, behaviour by behaviour approach and offers the possibility for workplaces leading the agenda in supporting people to live more sustainable lifestyles.


Contact

Email: Jonathan Waite