The Critical Role of Employee Sustainability Communities and How to Build One
Published Apr 18 2023 08:00 AM 10.4K Views
Copper Contributor

In my last blog post Make Sustainability Part of Everybody's Job (microsoft.com) I argued that sustainability teams would never have enough resources to drive change across the entirety of their organizations, and I provided practical tips for how to democratize sustainability work across all employees, roles, and job functions. In this article, I’ll explore one of the most effective ways to do that: employee sustainability communities. Companies who embrace and support these communities can grow the sustainability fluency of their existing workforce, attract and retain top talent, unlock innovation, and reduce their environmental impact simultaneously. These communities can also transform company culture, increase connection and cooperation across the entirety of the organization, and critically, bring more helping hands to a problem that is larger than any one of us.

 

Microsoft's employee sustainability community

Microsoft is well known as a corporate leader on sustainability with its ambitious commitments to become carbon negative, water positive, and zero waste by 2030. Additionally, it launched a $1 billion dollar Climate Innovation Fund, runs an internal carbon fee that charges its business groups for their greenhouse gas emissions, and is working to address the sustainability skills gap in the workforce. Lesser known is its internal employee sustainability community and the integral role it plays in driving sustainability work across the entire company. As a founder and leader of this community, I can provide a unique view into how it started and has evolved to become a centerpiece of Microsoft’s sustainability strategy.

 

 

Since 2018, Microsoft employees have self-organized into this grassroots, volunteer-led sustainability community and found creative ways to leverage the experience, skills, and passion of all employees to help the company achieve its sustainability commitments. It started with just 2 of us, but has grown to more than 10,000 members, 35 local chapters, and is a core part of the company’s sustainability strategy. Learn more about the community on pages 9-10 of Microsoft's 2021 Environmental Sustainability Report | Microsoft CSR.

 

The mission of the Sustainability Connected Community (SCC) is simple: make sustainability part of everybody’s job. How do we do it? Day to day community operations rely on a network of global volunteers who spend a few hours a week running programs that keep the entire workforce educated, inspired, and activated. Community members are encouraged to ask questions, provide answers, and share resources freely, creating an environment where information and opportunities abound.

 

The SCC is predominantly virtual, relying on the full suite of Microsoft 365 products like Teams, Yammer, and SharePoint, to create a rich digital ecosystem. Local chapters sometimes meet in person and provide a way to build relationships and improve regional offices and communities. The community provides regular synchronous and asynchronous ways for its global members to participate in the collective conversation. It hosts 3-4 calls a month, curates a regular newsletter, and provides open discussion forums that host thousands of conversations every year. It also manages an “always on” Hackathon platform so employees can work on sustainability projects with colleagues anytime, and regularly brings topical experts and senior leaders into direct conversations with employees.

 

To provide additional resources and support, the SCC is sponsored by our Chief Sustainability Officer. They are an active and visible member of the community, and use it to share important information, gain new insights, and address employee concerns directly. The community is also part of a formally resourced Communities of Practice program (Microsoft’s Connected Communities) and sits inside an ecosystem of 85 other CoPs and 50,000 other employees. 

 

The SCC plays an important role holding the company accountable to its sustainability commitments and pushing it to go further. For example, community members have raised concerns internally for years about the work Microsoft does with fossil fuel companies. These concerns ultimately led to a dialogue between employees and the company's President, and the publication of Microsoft’s first ever energy principles, which place conditions on how the company engages with the fossil fuel industry Working toward a net zero future: Evolving our work with energy companies. Employees at all companies have a critical role to play in pushing their employers to be more sustainable: the more organized they are, the more effective they will be.

 

In short, the SCC is the watercooler, classroom, and bulletin board of the 21st century hybrid workplace: members gather here to connect with each other and sustainability professionals, increase their understanding of the climate crisis, and critically, find the resources they need to do something about it with their unique background and skillset. The community acts as a connective tissue that cuts across traditional organizational boundaries and silos, ensuring that information and innovation flow freely throughout the entire company. Above all, it is a fun, welcoming, and warm place where employees can show up as their authentic selves and find the unique ways they can contribute.

 

Microsoft's employee sustainability community, page 10 of the company's 2021 environmental sustainability reportMicrosoft's employee sustainability community, page 10 of the company's 2021 environmental sustainability report

 

The future of work

The future of work is hybrid, distributed, open, and highly collaborative. Employee sustainability communities embody this model beautifully! And because they predominantly run on volunteer labor, they're one of the most cost-effective and organic ways to drive sustainability work across an entire company. Let's examine the unique role communities can play.

 

The unique role community can play: innovation, cooperation, and efficiency at scaleThe unique role community can play: innovation, cooperation, and efficiency at scale

 

The first one is innovation. Pursuing sustainability means finding new ways of doing things to reduce environmental harm. That will require changing behavior, rewards, incentives, and operational practices at every level of a company. Ultimately, it means embedding sustainability as a core cultural value that everyone feels responsible for. A community is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to accelerate sustainable culture change because it provides the ability to reach into every deep nook and cranny of the company and empowers thousands of employees to drive change in their spheres of influence. It also allows organizations to harness the ideas, creativity, passion, and ingenuity of the entire workforce.

 

Some of the most impactful things that have come out of Microsoft in the last three years started as employee hackathon projects: from strategic partnerships with Terrapraxis to decarbonize coal power plants, to the use of AI as a way to scale the quantification and classification of plastic debris in rivers to prevent them from reaching oceans. Giving all employees the ability to contribute provides a diversity of ideas and solutions that benefit every part of the company while exploring and codifying the intersections of existing job functions with sustainability. 

 

The second thing communities are uniquely built for is cooperation. If you look at the climate crisis at the macro level, what is required above all else is human cooperation on a scale we’ve never seen before. Inside a company, the kind of widespread and decentralized collaboration made possible by communities like this can lead to new innovations while creating a meaningful sense of purpose and belonging. Consider the experience of employees who joined companies during the pandemic: they may have never stepped foot in an office or met a single coworker face to face. Engaging in a community can help employees find their people and feel connected to their company. Additionally, most people will never have sustainability as part of their formal jobs and yet, according to Kite Insights, 83% of people want to take climate action in their jobs. Communities provide a way for people to unite their passion with their purpose at work and the resources all employees need to make sustainability part of their jobs. Along the way, they also create leadership development opportunities, which can lead to higher job satisfaction, retention, and loyalty.

 

Finally, communities create gains of efficiency. If you put all of this effort in one place, from peer-to-peer learning, to the ability to ask questions openly, get answers, and connect to colleagues and resources in the open, you end up maximizing the impact of people’s time. That level of connection, cooperation, and collaboration across an entire organization can break down information silos and help prevent employee “idea loss” and the randomization of employee suggestions on sustainability improvements to business operations.

 

Starting an employee sustainability community in your organization

Ready to build your own sustainability community? To be effective, you’ll want to use the right tool for the job, so let’s cover the 3 most common types of workplace communities!

 

The first are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERGs are generally voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace. Put another way, they are generally affinity groups for employees with a shared identity. ERGs tend to be unmanaged, decentralized, and rely on ad hoc collaboration.

 

Next is a Community of Interest (CoI), which as the name implies, is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. This could be something totally non-work-related like “hikers of Piper” or “cat lovers of Hooli.” CoIs are similar to ERGs in the sense that they are voluntary, distributed groups of people aligned to a common topic. The primary difference is that CoIs generally focus on topics that have nothing to do with the lived experience or identities of their members. CoIs and ERGs tend to have basic community structures (oftentimes nothing more than an email distribution list), ad-hoc collaboration, and few if any metrics that can be used to measure community activity or efficacy.

 

The last type of community discussed here, and the model used by the SCC at Microsoft, is a Community of Practice, which APQC defines as “designated networks of people who share information and knowledge… held together by a common purpose, which usually focuses on sharing experiences and insights related to a topic or discipline. CoPs perform a variety of knowledge-oriented tasks on behalf of organizations, including documenting and transferring best practices and lessons learned, providing access to expertise, supporting on-the-job learning, and coming up with new ideas and innovations.” These communities tend to have a more advanced community structure (like chapters or sub communities), formalized and regular activities (like monthly calls or newsletters), established people who run them (volunteers or employees), metrics to track and report on community activity, and are focused on problem solving, knowledge sharing, and elevating the collective intelligence of the broader organization they are a part of.

 

If you are starting or rebooting an existing community, you may need to work within the existing structure your company has (many only have ERGs). However, I recommend using a Community of Practice, or better yet building a portfolio of Communities of Practice, since these communities are designed for knowledge sharing. But fair warning: communities are a long-term investment. It can take years of hard work and persistence to realize the full value of a community. It takes time to grow expertise on any topic in an organization, but especially one as large, complex, and poorly understood as sustainability. So be tenacious and advocate for as many resources as you can (e.g. it should be someone’s actual job to run it!)

 

  Employee Resource Group (ERG) Community of Interest (CoI) Community of Practice (CoP)
The basics Unmanaged, decentralized, distributed, ad hoc collaboration Unmanaged, decentralized, distributed, ad hoc collaboration Managed, centralized, distributed, regular/formalized collaboration
Focuses on Connecting people, affinity groups, diversity and inclusion Connecting people around shared interest Connecting people to resources, collective problem solving, knowledge sharing/harvesting, centralizing information
Structure Basic Basic to medium  Medium to advanced, may include sub communities or formalized programs for knowledge management

 

Tips to get started

 

  1. See what already exists and leverage it: one of the most common barriers to successfully getting a community off the ground is the existence of multiple communities who might be doing the same thing, but in a disconnected way. Before creating something new in your organization, take the time to see what has already been created and go from there. The bigger tent you build, the more people you can invite in.
  2. Make your purpose clear: defining the community mission statement is critical - people won’t know what your community is for or how to use it without one! A clear mission statement unlocks participation, invites collaboration, and creates a shared sense of purpose. Less is more - a good mission statement is short, simple, and easy to understand. The mission of the SCC is “make sustainability part of everybody’s job."
  3. Make it easy to participate: people are busy at work. If you don’t make it easy to engage, you will struggle to grow and sustain your community.
  4. Meet people where they’re at: what platforms, tools, and processes does your company already use to run communities or invite open collaboration? Go with the current workflow to start. I’ve seen communities run on things as simple as email distribution lists. Version 1 doesn’t need to be fancy - it needs to be easy to find and use. You can improve and iterate over time as the community grows and matures.
  5. Get executive sponsorship: Having formal sponsorship adds legitimacy, which draws people in and increases participation, which increases value, bringing more people in, and suddenly you have a thriving, growing community! In this case, you could start with your company’s Chief Sustainability Officer or equivalent. Make sure they understand the value of an employee community, resource it, and can advocate for its best interests. Which leads me to…
  6. Make the business case for resources: Communities thrive on volunteer labor, but nothing beats having it be part of someone’s actual job. This ensures consistency, the most important ingredient for community management. You could try making the case for resourcing a larger program of communities like this - it’s likely your company has other topics it could leverage communities of practice for. Having a community budget can also unlock participation and things like in person volunteer events.

 

Conclusion

Companies that understand the value of engaging all of their employees on sustainability will thrive in a climate changed world. By democratizing sustainability work across all roles and job functions, organizations can create a culture of sustainability that will attract and retain top talent, unlock innovation, and lead to a workforce with high sustainability fluency. Employee sustainability communities are one of the most effective ways to do this at scale: they are uniquely suited to transform company culture, increase connection and cooperation, and critically, bring more helping hands to a problem that is larger than any one of us. 

 

In many ways, this challenge is reflective of the larger ones it is trying to solve: how do we build resilient communities to ensure the long-term health and well-being of people and planet? How do we collaborate at massive scales? In short, how do we change? None of us has the answers alone - we need to work together to solve these problems.

 

Learn more:

 

About the author: Drew Wilkinson is a climate activist, community organizer, and co-founder of

Microsoft’s 10,000 member employee sustainability community. He works for Planet Earth but provides

consulting services on the people side of sustainability: employee engagement, culture and change

management, community building, green skilling, and leadership development. Learn more on his

website or add him on LinkedIn.

 

 

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