Change agents: People power

11th March 2013

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Thomas Tang reveals how he has helped to engage AECOM's workforce with sustainability, cutting water and electricity use across Asia

If you really want to drive change in an organisation you cannot do it by systems alone, you’ve got to work with people. And watching our staff get the sustainability message is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

I joined international consultancy firm AECOM in 2009, and was given responsibility for understanding the environmental footprint of our offices in Asia. At the time, AECOM had 22 sites and employed 4,500 people and part of my job was to put a system in place to get a handle on the offices’ energy, water, waste and emissions, and their cost to the business.

In the subsequent years, AECOM has dramatically expanded across Asia, almost doubling in size, and the challenge has been to continue to tackle its environmental impacts. I’m proud to say that in 2011 we cut electricity use across our offices in Asia by 7% and water consumption by 13% compared with 2010.

This was possible thanks, in part, to new offices, designed to meet exacting environmental standards, and consolidating sites, but also through engaging the workforce with sustainability.

A key element in this has been the effective integration of new businesses, ensuring that their sustainability policies are aligned with AECOM’s. With many offices in remote places, modern communication technologies are really important in helping me to build relationships with new senior management teams so that they understand the firm’s core corporate social responsibility (CSR) values.

One of the first things I did at AECOM was to build pages on the company’s intranet with practical information on sustainability issues, to help staff and to dispel myths. I also worked to build up a sustainability network across offices, making sure each new office has a champion who is my permanent point of contact.

One the most successful tools I’ve found to convey the importance of tackling environmental impacts has been an office dashboard with metrics for energy, water and waste. Each office is given ownership of its own dashboard and we pull together all the results into a common dashboard. It’s a powerful motivator because staff can find out at any time exactly how their office is performing.

Another key initiative has been the creation of a “time bank” where employees doing voluntary work receive paid leave. It enables staff to use their professional skills to do something really meaningful for the wider community that they would have struggled otherwise to find time to do.

The scheme has enabled a group of AECOM’s landscape architects in China to design a garden for disabled children in a remote village, and another member of staff to help build a school in Cambodia. Projects like these get people excited about their work and promote the feeling that AECOM is a good company to work for, and that’s been particularly satisfying.

Equally important in engaging staff with our environmental agenda is the company’s annual Earth day sustainability competition, which I helped to establish in 2010. Taking the lead from AECOM offices in the US, we planned to celebrate Earth day, but didn’t just want a one-off event and wanted to tap into the skills of staff. The competition asks for ideas on how to improve the environmental performance of AECOM workplaces and to help local communities.

The competition runs in two rounds. In round one ideas are submitted and we select five or six to give a small amount of cash to get the project started. A year later we assess what the projects have achieved and name two overall winners.

In the competition’s first cycle, a team of consultants in Kuala Lumpur won the greening offices award for installing a hydroponic garden to grow vegetables. Hydroponic gardens are soilless and allow you to grow a lot of plants in a small space with little water.

The project helped to reduce the carbon footprint of the office, while raising awareness of sustainability in the rest of the team. It was a cool project because people could see things growing and evolving.

The community project award was given to a group of colleagues working on an artificial reef in Hong Kong, who developed a school programme to help local children learn more about marine life.

It’s important to remember that a business is not driven by the work, but by its people. As long as people are inspired they will deliver good work; the trick is in how to motivate them. Although sustainability and CSR are not the only components in this process, I believe they play a crucial part.

That said, engaging staff is not a case of putting up posters about turning lights off, you have to link sustainability back to the core of your business. At AECOM, our business is infrastructure; it’s about water, energy and transport. And I’ve found that, when I talk to individuals about how their work can impact the environment and society, they understand the sustainability message. And once they get it, they feel more motivated in their day-to-day work.

Dr Thomas Tang, FIEMA CEnv, is director of corporate sustainability at AECOM, Asia.

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