Behavior Change, Positive Impact and Purposeful Work: There is no “right” way to do it

Across nearly every industry, the topic of impact—how to create it, contribute to it, and control it—is being talked about, presented on, strategized over, and increasingly, being scrutinized to measure. Sure enough, it was the topic of focus at last month’s Sustainatopia conference in Boston, arguably one of the largest gatherings of influential decision-makers and thought leaders in the world of sustainability.

What do we mean by “impact?”

As WeSpire was a sponsor of the event, I took advantage of our team pass and attended the impressive lineup of sessions on the second day of the conference. The morning’s sessions included 3 keynote speakers, who mainly focused on impact investing, the evolution of the industry and how to communicate to others outside the “sustainability world.” The keynote idea that stuck with me most was from Julianne Zimmerman, of Reinventure Capital. She discussed how language and listening hold the answer for how corporations can make an impact on employees, society, the environment, and business as a whole. She cautioned us to first watch what language we use, as it shapes the way we think and vice versa.

Why is this important? Because if organizations aren’t sure of what they mean when they say “environmental impact,” “positive impact,” or “societal impact,” then stakeholders won’t know either, and therefore impact is not likely to be achieved. Perhaps the first step for ANY organization that wants to increase their positive impact on X needs to be reflection and discussion on what the organization means by “impact.” And if your organization is a little lost on how to go about defining it, Julianne advised to “start listening”—to employees, the community, and customers. Together, they hold the best ideas on where and how to create impact and including them in the conversation early builds buy in and support.

Behavior change for positive impact

Over the course of the event, our Founding Partner, Sarah Finnie Robinson, presented three times, the first of which was for a panel called, “Behavior Change 101: Engaging Employees (and Others) for Positive Impact.” We were fortunate enough to have four of our fabulous customers present on the panel including Mark Stephan (EMC), Tali Golan (TripAdvisor), Olga Allen (Abt Associates), and Atlanta McIlwraith (Timberland).

Sarah started off the discussion by asking, “How can organizations join people together to collaborate for positive impact?”

The beauty is that each of our customers has a different strategy for doing this, however each is essential and considered a best practice.

For EMC and Abt Associates, sustainability is spread out like a matrix across every department, incorporating it into every workflow. By allotting every employee 40 paid hours annually for volunteering, Timberland is a leading industry example for facilitating a culture of volunteerism. Whereas TripAdvisor has taken an approach toward charitable giving, and has one of the most relevant and generous “dollars for doers” program in the industry. Employees are incentivized to volunteer with organizations with the reward of being able to apply for large grants from the TripAdvisor Charitable Foundation on behalf of organizations they volunteer with.

Next, Sarah asked each panelist how their respective organizations’ corporate culture informs their impact efforts. Mark kicked it off by explaining EMC’s philosophy of empowerment and betterment, and how employees have the power and ability to make change. Many of their most successful campaigns and initiatives were suggested and developed by employees and fully supported by leadership. With their internal focus on innovation, they also saw opportunity to work with competitors to reach demand for cleaner, more responsible alternatives to products and materials they rely on. (Talk about breaking down barriers for the greater good!)

Atlanta explained how Timberland decided to frame its CSR approach around their products: from the sourcing of materials, to the communities where their factories are, and the environment that their customers enjoy while using their apparel. Olga explained how Abt Associates’ corporate mission to “improve the quality of life and economic well-being of people worldwide” leads every project, task, and initiative they take on.

Whether your organization focuses on your product, service, mission, or internal philosophy to guide your impact efforts, it truly doesn’t matter, as there are countless ways to strategize.

For example, TripAdvisor’s focus on travel transparency led their leadership team to respond to the current Syrian refugee crisis by creating a donation program empowering employees and customers to vote with their dollars and support the relief efforts. In just a matter of days, TripAdvisor staff rallied behind the concept, pushed it out publicly and met their goal of $375,000 in only 48 hours after announcing it.

Next, Sarah asked the panelists “How can you integrate behavior change and employee engagement across the organization while avoiding “whiplash” from disjointed but related corporate initiatives?” Atlanta explained how HR is a valued partner to the CSR efforts of her team, including CSR training for employees during on-boarding. Olga emphasized how her team at Abt Associates avoids using “sustainability” when describing or labeling initiatives, and instead focuses on the co-benefits for programs in order to increase sustainability employee engagement.

Generational gaps and cultural opportunities

Two final questions focused on how the panelists recommend catering to different generations in order to increase their engagement and engaging employees in different cultures around the world. Mark from EMC recommends “meeting people where they are,” and leveraging differing passions of different age groups. For example, Millennials may be really interested in volunteering for the environment, whereas Boomers may be more likely to donate to a great cause as a form of philanthropic investing. Conversely, Timberland offers skill-based volunteering and each service event offers a variety of tasks available depending on different employee desires and abilities for involvement.

When it comes to engaging employees around the world who work and live in different cultures, Atlanta shared Timberland’s philosophy of adapting initiatives to different regions to ensure they are culturally relevant. For example, for their stores in Japan, volunteering to the extent of their American counterparts didn’t make as much logistical or cultural sense. Instead, one of the company’s global stewards (a leadership program with a focus on CSR) suggested that during shift lulls and free time, Japanese store employees could fold origami cranes and donate them to charity (it is tradition to gift someone with 1,000 paper cranes as a sign of good luck). Also, in one of their South American factories, an employee suggested having a competition to write and sing a merengue song focused on the organization’s CSR values since latin music is frequently played and favored by employees.

These examples offer just a few ideas of how leading organizations can successfully strategize for and run successful sustainability and CSR engagement. Program execution can and will vary from company to company, however the intention should be the same: positive impact and positive experience for employees.