In the words of UNLEASH’s Jon Kennard, who alluded to the recent COP26 conference held in Glasgow, “sustainability is not an issue confined to two weeks in Scotland following Leonardo di Caprio’s Instagram. Sustainability is a long-term, company-wide business imperative.”
Indeed, research has shown the extent to which employees increasingly want climate-positive action and with younger generations increasingly concerned about the environment, sustainability is yet another string HR must add to its ever-expanding bow.
To put this into further context, a 2021 Deloitte survey found that more than four in 10 millennials and Gen Zs agree that we have already hit the point of no return when it comes to the environment and that it’s too late to repair the damage. However, in slightly more positive news, a majority are optimistic that peoples’ commitment to take personal action to address environmental and climate issues will be greater post-pandemic.
Our survey said…
Sustainability is already influencing purchase behavior — more than a quarter of millennials and Gen Zs say that certain business’ impact on the environment influenced their buying decisions — and in the age of the Great Resignation it’s not far-fetched to assume that it may also impact who people want to work for, and why.
“HR has a key role to play when an organization focuses on sustainability,” BMW Group Board Member Ilka Horstmeier, responsible for human resources, and the labor relations director, tells UNLEASH.
Brian Kropp, chief of HR Research at Gartner, agrees but notes that the function “will not be an agent that drives how a supply chain becomes more sustainable,” it will, however, be instrumental in how organizations tell that story.
Kropp believes that employees will look for proof of organizational commitments to sustainability – and, he adds, they will want to see real change in terms of how those commitments are implemented.
Emma del Torto, the managing director of EffectiveHRM, which provides an outsourced HR service to some 200 businesses in the UK, highlights just how much HR’s role has changed and evolved.
“There are so many factors that HR is now involved in, including occupational health, wellbeing, equality and diversity, strategic planning, charity work, improving the community, counselling services, and the wider impact that the organization has on its environment. This is not just for larger corporate organizations,” she says.
To achieve all of this, HR will need to continue building strong links with the C-suite to ensure sustainability remains a top priority. It’ll then need to proactively communicate changes and progress to the entire workforce, which will likely hold the function accountable if commitments aren’t fulfilled.
All of this will require a significant change in how HR — which doesn’t always get a deciding vote when it comes to such matters — operates. But CEOs everywhere will have to adapt, too.
“CEOs may have developed a sustainability plan to transform their organization but without the help of HR to communicate this, such plans can lose their value, especially within recruitment and retention strategies,” says Alan Price, CEO of Bright HR, an HR software platform.
Using technology to be more sustainable
Hybrid working affords the perfect opportunity to fundamentally change how organizations think about sustainability.
Allowing employees to work remotely a few times a week not only means they can enjoy greater flexibility but it also helps organizations drastically reduce their carbon footprint.
“We’re pushing the use of technology to conduct meetings instead of travelling,” del Torto explains.
It’s clear that sustainability will have to be embedded into how people work. The arrival of cloud technologies means that it’s possible, and plausible, for HR departments to conduct much of their work online — making the entire human resource process paperless from end to end.
“Holiday requests, return to work interviews, performance reviews, and even read receipts for policies can be carried out through these systems. We are big advocates of electronic signing of documentation and use a variety of e-signature software that is available at minimal cost, making sure that contracts are legally binding and creating copies at the click of a button,” del Torto adds.
Melanie Hayes, chief people officer at Harvey Nash Group, is focused on making an impact across diversity, equity and inclusion, wellbeing and community. To bring this to life, her team has built a wellbeing hub which is accessible to everyone and is updated monthly.
“Our plan is to offer wellbeing content for our colleagues, candidates, contractors and clients,” she adds.
Practical advice for HR leaders
Sustainability in the workplace is not a fad or a trend, it’s a responsibility that must be taken seriously by businesses and HR departments the world over.
“There will be no successful business model in the future without a commitment to sustainability,” says Horstmeier, who explains that sustainability consists of more than just the ecological pillar, “it’s the integration of environmental, social and economic factors.”
“For us, sustainability means thinking and acting beyond today for tomorrow. So the practical starting point for HR leaders is the understanding that sustainability is a non-negotiable for their organization and it needs to be at the heart of everything,” she adds.
Horstmeier urges fellow HR leaders to ask their workforce, through every level of the organization, how sustainability can be prioritized and how, as a team, they can go further in addressing all the dimensions of sustainability. “This helps engage employees in your sustainability agenda and will build a sense of collaboration when working towards your environmental goals and targets,” she adds.
Building on this, Hayes says clarity is vital. “Be clear on what you are trying to achieve. Keep it simple and build from that point. We have made a conscious effort to focus on fewer actions at a global level that deliver a sustainable impact. That doesn’t mean we don’t have bold plans but we want to ensure they are impactful.”
Del Torto advises HR leaders to look at their organizational values and goals.“If the goals and values are conflicting, then this will have a negative impact on your ability to achieve this status.”
Consult your workforce, she adds. “Running focus groups to find out what everyone thinks is important is a really good place to start.”
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, remember that the profitability vs sustainability perspective is outdated. “Customers and clients are now looking at businesses and expecting them to be able to provide a sustainable service. If you can’t offer that, they will more likely go elsewhere,” she concludes.
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