If you think engaging employees across several departments within your company is challenging, try engaging every employee from public defenders to road maintenance workers in one of California’s largest counties. Alameda County is tackling just that, using sustainability to rally their employees to take climate action.
Alameda County’s 9,000 employees range from sheriffs to librarians to landscapers. County employees provide health and human services to the most vulnerable populations, run elections, inspect restaurants, ensure the safe use of agricultural pesticides, prevent floods, and prepare for emergencies. Even though these employees work in different departments with very different day-to-day tasks, they have a common interest in making the county a better place to live and work. A recent countywide survey demonstrated that thousands of county employees are eager to make more sustainable choices. However, creating a structure in which employees are able to make those decisions is what makes Alameda County stand out.
I had the opportunity to talk to Emily Sadigh, Sustainability Project Manager at Alameda County, about their sustainability team’s success with employee engagement.
Tell me about how your program to engage employees in climate action started.
When our Board of Supervisors adopted the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 (and later the interim goal of 15% by 2020), a collaborative effort started among 20 county agencies to achieve the goal. This effort ultimately led to the Alameda County Climate Action Plan for Government Operations and Services.
Employees submitted more than 500 ideas for the plan at employee events and through the intranet, email, and their agencies’ Climate Coordinators. Then, employees representing all agencies weighed in on which actions to include and gave input on the relative difficulty of implementation for the selected actions.
Once the actions were selected, it was clear that to successfully implement many of them, we would need to create avenues for employees to engage in sustainable behaviors in areas ranging from waste reduction to energy conservation.
Given the size of your organization and diverse range of positions, how did you go about reaching your employees, cultivating effective messaging, and maintaining momentum?
To reach the broad base of 9,000 employees in 20 agencies, Alameda County has taken a research-based approach rooted in community-based social marketing (CBSM). Without effective internal messaging an implementation plan can easily fall flat, which is why our team took time to learn how to communicate our sustainability initiatives to our unique staff. Focus groups and a countywide survey indicated which behaviors employees were most likely to change and which messages would be most effective. Guided by these findings, we have piloted office paper and paper towel conservation campaigns using CBSM principles. The CBSM pilots were very successful, resulting in a 5-10% reduction in paper towel use and 5-25% reduction in office paper use, so now these campaigns are being rolled out more widely.