Employees often have good ideas about climate-friendly actions. Unfortunately, leaders and managers sometimes disregard those ideas subconsciously because of top-down thinking.
Before the coronavirus crisis, I could provide a whole series of examples of employee proposals related to conference calls and how they could drastically reduce travel and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. More than 20 percent of CO2 emissions in my country, the Netherlands, are caused by business traffic and transport. This problem can be reduced considerably by working from home and using online tools. Telecommunication providers even offer conference cards to promote virtual meetings.
The problem with these meetings – before COVID-19 – was that they were delayed by all kinds of technical complications. According to an article by Karin Devulder on savaco.com, meetings often start 12 minutes late. Two-thirds of people think the audio quality is bad. But all of this has been improved since COVID-19, which appears to have accelerated the digital era. In a time of climate change in business and when there are no or insufficient clean means of transport, digital solutions are of course a great solution.
Another example is business travel. Air traffic is responsible for 15 percent of acidifying substances and 14 percent of nitrogen emissions in the atmosphere. Many employees consider the long journeys a bit nonsensical and keep reminding their leaders that this can all be done in a cheaper and cleaner way. Climate should be on the minds of leaders as much as it is on employees’.
The Dutch internet site Duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl reports that no fewer than 24 companies have made flight arrangements. They have implemented 7 measures to tackle business air travel – partly because employees and society itself stressed the importance of sustainability. The organizations will actively reduce the number of air miles, compensate for emissions, and reduce the emissions per flight kilometer. Employees only want to fly above 700 kilometers and, if meetings last longer than 3 hours, conference calls and virtual meeting rooms will be used more often. Many people feel that when traveling from Amsterdam to f.e. Paris, Berlin, and London it’s better to do so by train, but – if they need to fly – than 118 direct flights are booked. And, last but not least, the organizations are investing in electric and hybrid flying and synthetic fuels.
Modern employees and their leaders will not be easily satisfied with such measures but will look creatively for more. Why should we have meetings longer than 3 hours? Can't we combine meetings and only fly for multi-day meetings? Do more people have to come along, or can 1 or 2 people handle it? Can't a virtual meeting take place much more often? With regard to car traffic: Shouldn't we move closer to work and travel more often by public transport or carpool? All these ideas are mentioned by employees and too often ignored by their leaders.
However, leaders should serve as examples for their employees and find ways to reach them. Unfortunately, sustainability is oftentimes a kind of toy for staff departments. Project groups are writing bulky reports that are proudly presented by companies as a tool for reputation management. But there is a big difference between the principles, rules, and actions. Sustainability should be a practical action and is the responsibility of everyone in every organization. It is an old-fashioned, 20th century management and employee attitude to be bored when it comes to climate change and its consequences for organizations.
Shouldn't we finally get rid of the mentality that ignores climate as if it were a problem that affects others and not ourselves? And should we not only embrace leaders who have visions and think about sustainability for the future? Where have the visionaries actually gone?
Employees want to hear long-term visions, especially young people who want to settle down, start families, buy houses, and plan their futures.
There is a need for employees who think about clean sustainable technology. A company that builds a factory to produce new plastics – as Shell unfortunately did – is on the wrong side of the line in the 21st century. The social sympathy is for the companies that aim for results, but climate consciousness is part of that. Combinations of creativity, sustainability, and results are the things we need. Employees who are sustainability minded should be prioritized over short-term thinkers who ignore climate issues when hiring.
And last but not least, employees should be asked for their opinions on how they can make their daily workplaces more sustainable. Give bonuses for good sustainable ideas. Stop reports with passive analysis that disappear in drawers. Make people responsible for sustainability in the workplace and reward them. A sustainability bonus won’t change everything, but it stimulates the right 21st century attitude. Especially when climate improvement is presented as fun instead of a boring duty.
Bert Overbeek is an experienced and in-demand leadership coach and trainer with international experience. His books regularly reach the top 5 in the Dutch Management Book top 100. He offers online leadership training and coaching in the coronavirus era. He created the “switching leadership” framework, which guides leaders and managers in times of turbulent change.