Employee Engagement

White Paper: Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement

The YMCA is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” It is our mission, as their consultants (InnoVerde), to help support and make these ideals effective and efficient. We believe that the promotion of a healthy spirit, mind, and body cannot happen without the shared values of sustainability.

The YMCA faces many challenges, especially in these difficult economic times. They have had to face layoffs, pay cuts, smaller donations, and loss of memberships; all of these factors impact employee engagement. While the YMCA has begun to take measures to make it a more green organization, one of their biggest challenges is persuading their board of advisors to make positive changes while also engaging different levels of stakeholders in the organization to voluntarily participate in sustainability initiatives.  YMCA is a large organization with 13 separate facilities in the capital region, all in different communities with different socio-economic backgrounds.  In addition, each branch faces lower paid employees and rotating volunteers. The question is how to implement and support the YMCA’s mission while promoting sustainability throughout the entire organization by motivating and engaging those involved in every aspect of the organization.  In this paper, we will focus on global best practices of engaging employees in sustainability initiatives and give our recommendations for the YMCA as influenced by these best practices.

The National Environment Education Foundation has done research on environmental and sustainability employee education (E&S education). Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, there were a number of best practices that engaged employees in E&S education. Employee engagement can be broken down into two themes: corporate strategy and communication, and creating and managing programs. Under the corporate strategy and communication theme, E&S education initiatives need to be linked to key business objectives and framed in terms of management risks and opportunities. To increase effectiveness, societal and stakeholder expectations must be stressed as well. Employees are important sources to address and benefit from this shift.  Everyone should be involved in this culture shift, not just those dedicated to sustainability. In order to create and manage programs, recognition can be used as a motivation for satisfactory work. Companies can start with E&S education pilot programs that require few resources and measure the impacts of the pilots to make way for larger programs. Because each geographic region has its unique problems and opportunities, different approaches need to be considered. Incentives (e.g., bonuses and awards) can be used to improve environmental performance.  Lastly, employees should be give feedback regularly as to how much their E&S actions are making a difference. Research also found benefits in other business aspects as a result of E&S education, such as improved operational efficiency, strengthening customer relations, innovation, efficient supply chain management, strengthened community ties, and employee loyalty and retention.

A study was done on nine of the most sustainable public multinational companies in the world.  All but one company was founded over one hundred years ago, and all companies had over fifty thousand employees. The researchers found seven qualities critical to evaluating the companies: deeply ingrained values, strategic positioning, top management support, systems alignment (structures, processes around sustainability), metrics, holistic integration (across functions), and stakeholder engagement. Researchers interviewed key executives of each company, and rated the companies according to the evaluation criteria based on a scale from zero to five.  It was found that the greatest contributions by the HR function to sustainability effectiveness were in leadership development, training and development, diversity/multiculturalism, and ethics and governance. Other strong areas of effectiveness were noted in talent management and workforce engagement. One of the notable companies in the study was Intel, of which we will go into further detail due to its relevance to the issues faced by the YMCA.

As one of the Top 500 Green Companies in America according to Newsweek, the 2nd place Green Power Partner of the Year according to the U.S. EPA, and one of the best places to launch a career according to Business Week, Intel has balanced the triple bottom line while still reporting profitability for the last 23 years.  At Intel, employee engagement in sustainability is used as a retention strategy which has resulted in increased employee loyalty, more company pride, and improved morale. There are three approaches of employee engagement within Intel with the first one being strategic alignment. There are consistent messages through strategy documents, as well as goals and compensation structures to help employees understand how they personally can impact the company’s overall CSR strategy and goals. Sustainability also needs to fit into the company’s culture. Since Intel has a strong engineering culture and is focused on innovation, employees can be motivated by linkages between data and business results, engagement in innovation of processes to reduce environmental impact or develop new products, and by sharing their engineering skills with the community in order to address environmental and social challenges. The second approach is functional group engagement, which leverages different business groups to make unique contributions to different functional areas. In Intel, there are specified sustainability champions in different departments across the company, from IT support to supply chain management to events marketing group. Different roles are identified for them to play in terms of their different business functions. The last approach is communications which includes reaching the broader employee base through social media, incentive programs, and recognition programs; these programs connect employees on projects and foster the exchange of ideas.  Some specific examples are Intel’s internal social media platform “Planet Blue”, programs like the Environmental Excellence Awards and Sustainability in Action Program, and employee-led groups like the Intel Employee Sustainability Network, which supports sustainable initiatives. These platforms give employees the opportunity to share ideas and submit questions, and recognize employees who have helped to reduce Intel’s environmental impact.

In terms of the YMCA, we feel that convincing the board of advisors is an essential first step toward the implementation of any initiative. Top-down support is important in the process of implementing organization-wide change, particularly when dealing with separate branches.  We feel if we can show the board how important sustainability is to their mission and some simple steps they can take, we will have their support.  Since the YMCA is a not-for-profit organization, they do not have a large enough budget to implement costly initiatives. As a result, our recommendations towards stakeholder engagement in sustainability initiatives will start with programs requiring fewer financial resources, such as green teams, child education, and sustainability orientation.

Green teams are a form of employee engagement and a channel for individuals to express ideas and thoughts about sustainability within their own facility as well as the organization as a whole.  Each team would consist of one or two people from each level/aspect of the YMCA community including an executive from the board of advisors, a manager, an employee, a volunteer, and a member.  The variety of individuals would provide a diverse range of perspectives on sustainability.  A representative from each facility’s team will meet with others at a regional level to share their ideas.  It is an easy way for the representative to see how others have implemented change, as well as overcome conflicts and challenges.  They can also compare and contrast what they all are facing and take those issues on to the final green team.  This green team has the power to speak with the CEO and executive board of advisors to let them know of important struggles they may have that cannot be solved at a lower level and to win upper management’s support of any changes that need to be made.  Not only does this help to create a forum for ideas, it can also help to solve challenges at all levels and communicate to the individual that his voice is important.

The YMCA is the largest childcare provider in the Capital District.  This presents a perfect opportunity for informing the community and members of the YMCA about its sustainability efforts, and for educating them on the importance of being green.  The childcare providers can explain why it is important to recycle and turn off the lights, use reusable cups, and eat healthy.  Members of the childcare program often grow up within the YMCA community, using their facilities through adulthood.  Educational programs can create a base knowledge on sustainable living and build upon that knowledge each year by adding levels of detail and complication, so that as children grow older, they have a wider breadth and understanding of sustainability and how it relates to the YMCA’s mission of overall wellness.  Children love to share their knowledge with others, and will promote these ideas through the community to their parents, friends, and schools.  These small changes would shift the YMCA’s public perception from that of a gym or fitness center to a wellness center.

Orientation is already an important aspect of the YMCA, since it has so many employees and volunteers.  The topic of sustainability should be added to orientation.  Volunteers and employees should first be informed about the YMCA’s mission and what sustainable initiatives the organization has undertaken to become greener.  Then, they should be taught simple ways to help the YCMA be eco-friendly and energy efficient.  This is a simple, inexpensive step that is educational.  By teaching new approaches in the organization at the beginning, the newest generations of the YMCA will not have old habits that are difficult to break.

In conclusion, we feel that educating the newest generations of YMCA members, volunteers, and employees through childcare and orientation will allow a straightforward transition into sustainable practices throughout the organization.  Green teams allow for engagement as well as the sharing of ideas which can then be communicated throughout the organization with the board’s backing and support with the correct marketing.  The examples of global best practices we explored, from E&S education to successful evaluation criteria, have helped us to shape a strategic plan for the YMCA that is very closely aligned with the practices of successful sustainable companies.


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