Supporting Environmental Initiatives in the Workplace

Australian Research Supports Empowering Environmental Initiatives Through Workplace Design

Amidale, New South Wales, Australia. Photography © Terry Cooke. This image is governed by Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 (CC BY 2.0).

A recent study from the University of New England (New South Wales, Australia) has confirmed what many focused on the workplace already know: the workplace can have an effect on how individuals engage in pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) at home. However, the study also led to some interesting findings regarding the effectiveness of workplace environmental policies and the role that individual motivation plays in workplace sustainability efforts. The university was specifically interested in determining how employee autonomy factored into this relationship (were there strong organizational pressures to engage in PEBs, were employees enabled to make changes they wanted to see, etc.). 

Utilizing survey data attained via a QualtricsTM research panel, information was collected across a wide swathe of Australians to gauge employee pro-environmental attitudes, how regulated an office was in regards to procedure and policies, job satisfaction, and frequency of workplace and non-workplace PEBs.

Examples of Pro-environmental Behaviors Discussed in the Study:

  • Waste reduction
  • Recycling
  • Reduced energy use  
  • Water saving efforts
  • Proper waste disposal
  •  Reduced instances of single-use plastics

Researchers predicted that workplace initiatives tied to bonuses, employee reviews, and company processes would be the strongest indicator of a high instance of workplace PEBs. Big Fish, Seattle. Photography © Sherman Takata.

The Results

Unsurprisingly, the data showed that employees who were already environmentally motivated and worked in an organization that was openly committed to the environment showed high levels of both workplace and non-workplace PEBs. Counterintuitively, though, employees were less likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior in the workplace (compared to the home) if there were higher levels of controlled motivation (i.e., bonuses associated with waste reduction, company policies promoting recycling, etc.).

The researchers pointed out that one possible explanation for this might be that organizations with highly-regulated procedures, policies, and incentives relating to environmental behaviors were also very likely to have procedures, policies, and incentives relating to other initiatives, which taken together could create initiative fatigue. Ultimately, it was determined that the strongest indicator of workplace PEB was autonomous motivation—the level to which an individual felt personally motivated to engage in such behaviors.

What Do the Results Mean?

The most significant takeaway from the study is that workplace policies, procedures, and incentives weren’t, as prior research had suggested, the best predictor of how employees engaged in PEBs in the workplace. The research indicated that “employees with the highest levels of autonomous PEB motivation are found in organizations that support both pro-environmental activity and worker’s autonomy.” In other words, the key to inspiring positive environmental behaviors both inside and outside of the office is to empower employees to act on their own motivation.

How This Applies to Workplace Design

A number of requirements (such as the availability of water fountains or recycling stations, for example) associated with LEED Gold and WELL certifications are supported by the findings of this recent study. DPR Construction, Austin, TX. Photography © Peter Molick.

When designing projects for WELL, LEED, or Net Zero certification, IA has found that empowering employees to make environmentally conscious decisions has to be prioritized early on in the planning and design process. This latest research not only confirms that but implies such planning could also inspire similar behaviors at home.

While further research is needed to verify the findings and their applicability outside of Australia, the following points should be considered by workplace design stakeholders:

  • Giving employees increased control over lighting and temperature is likely to result in employees taking conscious energy-saving action. Tangentially, this supports the strategic placement of water fountains (to reduce single-use plastic usage) and recycling receptacles in the workplace.
  • During the workplace strategy process it’s imperative that the design and user teams carefully consider which pro-environmental behaviors employees may want to develop in the future so that staff can be empowered to act.
  • The study suggests that establishing a pro-environmental work climate could increase PEBs both in and out of the office, and that branded messaging in the workplace, often delivered by experiential graphic design, could promote such initiatives more than company policies or other forms of controlled motivation might.
  • The research notes that employees motivated to engage in pro-environmental initiatives “are found in organizations with strong pro-environmental climates.” This supports the notion that a workplace with a strong “pro-environmental climate” could serve to attract talent that is self-motivated to engage in PEBs.

As further research is developed, it will be important for sustainability and wellness-focused firms like IA Interior Architects to monitor the factors that motivate employees to take action that positively impacts the environment, and potentially brings cost-savings and higher morale to their organizations.

IA is a global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists. We focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture—a radical idea in 1984, when IA was founded. We are highly connected agents of change, committed to creativity, innovation, growth, and community.

IA is a global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists. We focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture—a radical idea in 1984, when IA was founded. We are highly connected agents of change, committed to creativity, innovation, growth, and community.

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