How To Incentivize Employees to Go Green at the Office

Posted on February 15th, 2011 by

Over the past few years, companies and government agencies are investing more and more in “green” buildings. These high-tech, low-impact, resource-efficient buildings come equipped with technology that can make them 50 percent more efficient than their “non-green” peers.

Unfortunately in many cases, these green buildings are not living up to their green performance ratings. A 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute of LEED buildings found that less than half of LEED certified buildings were able to achieve ENERGY STAR ratings above 75 percent, and nearly a quarter of LEED buildings were performing worse than the U.S. building average[1]!

One reason that some green buildings are not achieving high environmental performance is because employees, tenants, and visitors are not doing their part to leverage green building technology, or to help the building with its conservation goals.

There are a number of strategies to incentivize employees to do their part to go green – these strategies generally fall into a couple of key categories: Awareness, Automation, Incentives, and Peer Pressure.

Awareness – often employees do not take simple steps to reduce their environmental impact because they are not aware of the impact of their actions – one powerful way to build awareness of resource use is to context an employee’s actions in environmental or economic terms. For example, by not turning off my computer at night for a year, I produce 500 lbs of greenhouse gas emissions and cost my company $40. Another option is a visual display – one leading media company collected water bottles from their sets for a week and then displayed these water bottles outside the building – enough to fill up a 10’x10x’10 bin!

Reset environmental defaults – often employees make the wrong choice for the environment because they go with the default option – their printer is automatically set to single-sided printing, so they always print single-sided. The waste basket is by their desk and the recycling bin is in the break room, so they throw their soda can into the wastebasket. Resetting the defaults in these situations can have a huge impact on employee behavior. Some simple defaults would include default duplex printing and power management settings on all employee computers, recycling bins at employee work stations and wastebaskets in the break room, and air hand dryers closer to the bathroom sink than the paper dispenser – if the environmental choice is easier, employees will almost always choose it.

Automate – employees are busy people, and taking steps to reduce their environmental impact may be seen as too much trouble. Automating key processes in a building can help remove the employee impact from a building’s environmental impact. Examples of this include motion sensors and photosensors on lights, programmable thermostats with setback temperatures, sink aerators that conserve water (or automatically shut off), and a waste program that sorts recycling directly from the trash. Sometimes automating these processes will have a greater environmental impact (and will save time and money) over training employees to pay more attention to these impacts.

Incentivize – When employees understand the environmental and cost impacts of their behavior, they will often reduce their environmental impact. Providing employees with an incentive to conserve can increase this responsible behavior. Rewards can be financial (for every kilowatt or gallon of water you save, I will pay you a percentage), or they can be simply recognition-based (an award for the division, floor, or person who reduces their environmental impact the most). Many companies have found that non-monetary recognition works just as well as giving the employees cash back for conservation.

Peer pressure – recent studies into environmental behavior change have found that often the best way to drive environmental performance improvement is to simply make environmental responsibility the norm in office settings. If an employee sees their peers turning their lights off, actively recycling, duplex printing, and biking to work, they will be more likely to do it too. To drive this type of behavior change, companies can work an “environmental code” into new hire training, designate, train, and reward key office “captains” to drive environmental behavior, or engage senior staff in driving the program throughout the company.


Written by William Grayson, ICF International

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