News Article
February 1, 2014

Employee engagement in sustainability: Where’s the ‘easy button’?

Organizations increasingly look to their employees to help increase energy efficiency and pursue sustainability goals. Many are building sustainability programs, setting goals and reaching out to employees. Corporate policies and sustainability priorities are often set by a group of highly motivated and committed leaders – but how do employees view the role of the company, and how do they express their own priorities? Two 2013 research initiatives within Johnson Controls explored workplace culture and the roles of individual employees and the company. They are:

  • Development of the Sustainability Engagement Navigator tool and attendant pilot testing.

  • A worldwide, online Sustainability @ Work survey.

In this article, we share findings from the research, looking at:

  • How do employees view the role of the company versus their own responsibilities for delivering sustainability in the workplace?

  • What types of sustainability initiatives are most popular?

  • What types of initiatives draw the least interest?

The key finding from both research initiatives is that successful programs require strong organizational initiative and investment that enable employees to feel they are helping to increase the sustainability of their workplace in ways that do not interfere with their jobs.

Sustainability Engagement Navigator: Overview

The complexity of human behavior and issues around sustainability can make it difficult to understand how to approach an employee engagement program. The Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency (IBE) created the Sustainability Engagement Navigator to make it easier to assess employee attitudes around sustainability practices in the workplace. The tool allows employees to assess best practices in workplace sustainability and select those they see as most important and in which they would most likely participate.  Armed with this information, green teams and executives can better prioritize their sustainability efforts.

The tool is simple. First, employees read about each practice. Next, on a 5-by-5 matrix, they rank:

  • On the X-axis, the importance of each sustainability engagement practice – (its potential to positively affect sustainability in their workplace)

  • On the Y-axis, the likelihood that they would participate in that activity.

The tool includes two distinct groups of practices:

Engagement Methods: Communication-based activities, platforms or tool-based mechanisms that deliver a message, assist in information gathering, or educate and engage employees.


Employee Actions: Things employees can do to contribute to sustainability in the workplace and reduce their own impacts on the environment.


To obtain industry feedback on the practices, the tool was piloted, revised, and piloted again.  In all, nearly 1,600 employees applied the tool, representing five organizations (TD Bank, George Washington University, Johnson Controls, a life sciences company and a freight railroad company).

Sustainability @ Work Study: Overview

Concurrent with the development of the Sustainability Engagement Navigator tool, the Johnson Controls Global Workplace Innovation group, in conjunction with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London, studied organizational culture and how employees perceive sustainability in the workplace. The research documented the variety of opinions on what sustainability in the workplace should mean, based on employees’ perceptions of costs and benefits to themselves and the organization.[1]

A follow-up study sought to better classify workplace cultures and identify ways in which people can become more engaged in creating more sustainable workplaces and working patterns. The survey, carried out online and accessed through the Johnson Controls Global Workplace Innovation website, was distributed globally to over 4,000 respondents, including 680 from the United States.

Sustainability Engagement Navigator and Sustainability @ Work Findings

A central finding of the Sustainability @ Work survey was that, “Organizations wishing to develop a more sustainable workplace are most likely to succeed if they demonstrate strong leadership and a tangible commitment which employees can respond to.”[2]   Seventy-five percent of respondents agree that employees should be actively involved in making work practices more sustainable, but only 36 percent indicated they would favor sustainable practices that affect the way they work.[3] Specifically, employees do not want to be burdened with sustainability and do not want it to affect their existing working patterns.

The findings from the Sustainability@Work Survey directly mirrored the findings from the Sustainability Engagement Navigator pilots: Employees were much more likely to participate and find importance in sustainability practices that required relatively little effort on their part and more investment on the part of the organization.

Both Sustainability Engagement Navigator pilotsrevealed that practices in the Employee Actions category are the ones employees are more likely to participate in and find important. They perceived Engagement Methods (like competitions, volunteering and training) as requiring relatively more effort and more time outside their normal jobs  than Employee Actions(like printing double sided, reusing cups or receiving company information electronically).

Among Employee Actions, the activities rated most attractive were those the organization would set up or provide, rather than those that would require more employee effort.

For example, Employee Actions that ranked high included reusable food and drink containers, paperless paychecks and company information, virtual meetings, and double sided printing – all easy to for the company implement and sustain and not burdensome for employees.   On the other hand, employees were less favorable toward actions that required significant behavior change and effort – like biking to work, carpooling, taking public transportation, sharing office/desk space, being accountable for printing, performing waste audits, and reducing lighting. In fact, Bike to Work and Hoteling and Hot Desking ranked lowest among all Employee Actions among the second pilot participants.


Sustainability is becoming more important to organizations’ business strategy and public image. As they work to integrate sustainability throughout business practices, companies are engaging employees to participate. Likewise, employees expect their employers to be socially and environmentally responsible and are willing to help drive workplace sustainability.

However, organizational culture is complicated and dynamic. The Sustainability Engagement Navigator pilot and the Sustainability @ Work survey demonstrate that organizations will benefit from engaging employees, but should focus on enabling employees to participate without burdening them. Strong leadership, organizational investment and platforms for enabling employee sustainability efforts will likely lead to successful programs in the workplace.


February 2014


[1] Myerson, Jeremy (Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design) and Dr. M. Puybaraud (Johnson Controls). “Sustainable Cultures: Creating Greener Workplaces for All.” Institute for Building Efficiency, 2012.

[2] Sustainability @Work US Results.

[3] Sustainability @ Work US Results

Related Article(s)