Sustainable Cultures: Creating greener workplaces for all

This communication study explores ways in which companies can encourage their employees to adopt more sustainable habits in the workplace.

See Sustainable Cultures toolkit here

The way we work is having a major effect on our environment. Even a company with the most well designed building is going to waste energy if the blinds in the office are left down and the lighting on, or the windows are left open with the heating on. Human behaviour is simply fundamental to how much energy a building consumes.

While businesses are looking for ways to develop a more sustainable culture at work, they are struggling to define the right approach. There has been growing emphasis on investment in energy-efficient technologies, but far less attention has been paid to changing the way people work to create more sustainable working lives.

This two-year communication project in partnership with global facilities company Johnson Controls set out to find new ways for companies to better support employees in making more sustainable choices at work. The research created case studies in three multinational companies from three different industry sectors (consumer goods, financial services and real estate).

This involved interviews and workshops with a selection of employees chosen from different departments and roles to represent a cross-section of each company. In all, 36 people took part in the study. These participants were in three age groups: under 30, 30-50, and over 50.

From the outset it was clear that people had a wide variety of views on what sustainability in the workplace should mean. These were based on people's perceptions of the various costs and benefits to both company and employee of being sustainable.

Four Different Cultures
The research team identified four different workplace cultures towards sustainability. The Housekeeper culture puts the responsibility of sustainability on the employee without the company bearing any costs itself - its attitude is 'waste not, want not' to cut down on the use of resources.

The Pragmatist believes that sustainability should not pose a cost to the employee or the company – its motto is 'it has to work for everyone'. The Libertarian believes sustainability is the responsibility of the company and not employees – its message is 'free will should prevail'. The fourth cultural model, the Campaigner, advocates that both the company and employees should shoulder the burden – 'we all need to take urgent action'.

These ideas were tested in a further set of workshops with experts in the field and organisations from a range of other sectors (pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics and non governmental).

The framework of four cultures was then developed into an online toolkit for use by company managers responsible for sustainability, facilities and communications.

The toolkit shows how companies can improve their approach to sustainability and develop an appropriate strategy for their internal communications that fits with their organisational culture. In a step-by-step guide, the toolkit contains workshop templates and a diagnostic tool to help companies evaluate their current approach to sustainability and plan what they want to do in the future. The toolkit also contains recommendations on how to create a communications strategy and presents examples of how different initiatives – for example, saving energy – might be tailored to Pragmatist, Housekeeper, Libertarian and Campaigner cultures, providing practical guidelines on how to roll out a campaign.

Research Associate 2012: Lottie Crumbleholme
Senior Research Associate: Catherine Greene
Research Partner: Johnson Controls
RCA Department: Visual Communication and Design Products
Project period: 2010 - 2012

Sustainable Cultures
Sustainable Cultures