Turning staff on to switching off

7th July 2013


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  • Management ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Construction ,
  • Mitigation



Claire Baker reports on a project to raise staff awareness of energy consumption at Costain

To any building, facilities or energy manager, reducing energy use in buildings is essential to maximise efficiency and reduce costs. There are many technical solutions that can be implemented to cut a building’s energy consumption but unless the occupants are engaged, efficiencies cannot be optimised.

Costain Group is one of the UK’s leading engineering solutions providers and in 2012 a project in four of its offices – covering both permanent and temporary sites – examined the impact of interventions on knowledge and behaviour to reduce energy use.

The building fabric

Around 45% of UK emissions are from buildings; non-domestic properties alone generate 18% of the country’s carbon footprint. With commercial buildings responsible for such a high proportion of the UK’s overall emissions, property owners and operators increasingly acknowledge that this is an issue they need to address.

There is also an opportunity for companies involved in designing, constructing and demolishing properties to minimise energy consumption in processes and material use, and ensure the lifetime energy use of a building is as efficient as possible.

Costain Group reports its carbon emissions and promotes ways of reducing energy consumption. It is also involved in the design, construction and operation and maintenance of buildings for its customers. There is an expectation that its own buildings and staff are highly energy efficient.

To test that assumption, Costain staged an energy awareness week, which included providing staff with relevant information, gathering feedback and establishing a system of “rewards and punishment”.

Spreading the word

Several communication methods were employed to disseminate information and raise awareness among as many employees as possible across the four selected offices. These methods included:

  • Energy emails – All staff received a daily message about energy. There was a different theme each day and the topics covered included: computers, lighting, heating and photocopiers. On the last day, the email contained a general summary. The emails provided information about the specific theme for the day, with a link to an online interactive tool for those who wanted further details. The message also challenged building occupants to do something different to be more energy efficient. The first daily email included a statement on the energy consumption of the building and its cost.
  • Drop-in sessions – Two lunchtime sessions were run during the week where occupants could find out more information, pick up leaflets on energy reduction opportunities at work and at home, and participate in activities.
  • “Toolbox” talks and briefings – For the staff of subcontractors who did not have access to email, there were toolbox talks and briefings covering the same topics as the daily energy emails.
  • Themed posters – Each day new posters (mostly produced by the Carbon Trust) were put up around the offices in line with the theme of the day.

In addition to sharing information on saving energy, each of the daily emails set a goal related to the theme of the day. The aim of providing the challenges was to help people focus on one particular thing each day, but there was an expectation that these goals were to be maintained going forward. The daily messages also contained feedback on the occupants’ performance on the goal set the previous day.

The very first objective, set on the Monday, was to switch off all electrical equipment when it was not in use and then performance was assessed throughout the week. This was regarded as the most measurable goal associated with individual behaviour, rather than group behaviour. Each day, the number of electrical items left powered were counted and the performance fed back to staff in the emails.

To further drive behaviour change, a “consequence intervention” was established. Daily inspections were carried out to encourage all employees to turn off equipment. On the Monday and Friday, this resulted in participants who had turned off their equipment receiving a reward (sweets) and those that had not, being given a sticker that told them to “save it – by switching off”.

Rewarding good behaviour was designed to incentivise the same behaviour through the week, with the expectation of more rewards, while issuing the sticker gave a visual indication of who had not turned things off, highlighting “bad behaviour”.

Did it work?

Staff understanding of energy issues was assessed using a quiz-style questionnaire and by asking individuals to rate their own knowledge before and after the energy awareness week.

The results showed that there was an increase in employees’ knowledge at all locations, but interestingly the results also indicated that permanent offices were influenced more by information contained in emails than those in temporary offices, where posters seemed more effective.

Another finding was that self-rated knowledge showed a bigger increase in permanent offices than in temporary premises. Data on the number of occupants receiving the “save it – by switching off” stickers on the Friday reveal a large improvement over the week (see table below), and no significant difference was seen in the behaviour of staff in permanent offices compared with those in temporary locations.

The improvement in energy performance was gauged using energy data normalised against degree-day data – a measure of the difference between the baseline and the actual outdoor temperature – to build a model of actual energy consumption against estimated consumption.

Normalising energy data against temperature is important, as external temperatures will affect the amount of energy used in a building. It is also a good way to build a model of energy consumption to determine whether an energy reduction project has been effective or not.

All four sites participating in the project experienced a decrease in energy usage of 2–5% against anticipated energy consumption.

Also, all of the intervention methods applied – information, goals, feedback and rewards/punishment – helped to develop knowledge, change behaviour and improve energy performance in the four offices.

Going further

Following the success of the energy awareness week project, Costain has rolled out the campaign nationwide. Feedback from 42 sites, responding to an online survey on the effectiveness of the initiative, reveals that around 3,000 employees and subcontractors have been influenced by the initiative.

Sites were asked to rate the different communication methods and the toolbox talks were seen as the most useful. Most sites responding to the survey also reported that energy consumption declined as a result of the campaign, with reductions ranging 1%–11%. The majority of sites recorded a 5–6% cut in their energy consumption compared with previous weeks.

The company continues to drive good energy behaviour by repeating the messages of the energy awareness week throughout the year.

The Costain project demonstrates that interventions to raise awareness of energy issues can be effective and are essential in addressing occupants’ impact on a building.

Occupant behaviour is a big part of the energy consumption of a building, so unless such a behavioural solution is implemented across all non-domestic buildings, the UK may have difficulty reaching its target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Claire Baker is graduate environmental adviser at Costain Group.


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