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Behavior Change
More Recycling Evangelists, Fewer Space Heaters Under the Desks

I used to work in an office where the technical writer, a former environmental scientist, was so passionate about sustainability that she went out of her way to encourage and educate others about recycling. She even started a k-cup recycling program in the break room, and she personally carried home the bag each week and included it with her own recycling.

I’ve also worked in offices where everyone has space heaters cranking away under their desks because management installed programmable thermostats to reduce heating costs, then programmed them with aggressive set points, which resulted in everyone freezing while typing. It costs about $20 per month to operate a space heater for six hours a day, so if 10 people are using them, the cost to the company is about $200 per month. If the office thermostat is being adjusted to save money and staff are using space heaters, there go the savings.

So how can we get more recycling advocates and fewer employees being forced to take comfort into their own hands in the workplace?

The Link Between Energy Savings & Behavior

Integrating energy-saving behaviors into a workforce can be challenging, yet the results can be staggering. Commercial buildings, which already occupy 80 billion square feet and account for roughly 20 percent of total U.S. energy use, have the fastest growth rate for energy use in the U.S. of any end-use sector. While the federal government has invested heavily in energy-efficiency initiatives aimed at commercial facilities, energy behavior programs remain largely absent from current programs, despite the role they can play in helping to achieve corporate sustainability goals.

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Energy behavior programs, which are designed and conducted by companies to reduce building energy use through change in employees’ attitudes and behaviors, can save as much as four percent on energy costs on their own, or up to 75 percent when combined with other energy-efficiency projects, according to a recent report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). They can be both affordable and engaging for employees.

The report recommends that when management is developing energy behavior programs, they set an overall tone that conveys the importance of sustainability, build a team of peer champions, utilize communication tools and deploy engagement techniques. Support of upper management is often critical to the development and success of a behavior-based sustainability program in the workplace. Some companies have gone so far as to integrate the results of these programs into annual performance reviews, which determine annual bonuses, thereby creating a powerful incentive for participation, according to the ACEEE report.

Further, work-based energy behavior programs can be extended to influence people at home. This is typically accomplished by targeting activities that begin or end at work (e.g., bike to work, public transportation or carpooling initiatives) and targeting behaviors that can be done at both work and home (e.g., recycling, composting, reducing water use and using energy-efficient technologies). Integrated work-home behavioral programs can be strengthened with elements such as gamification and kit giveaways.

Integrating a Game-Based Approach

For example, Cool Choices has developed a game model that works to convert simple daily sustainability practices (e.g., carpooling, recycling items, replacing incandescent light bulbs at home, etc) into fun, noticeable and rewarding opportunities. As employees take actions, they “play” their cards on a company-branded website, thereby earning points for themselves and their team. The dynamics of cards, points, competition (at the individual and team level) and leaderboards combine to create a fun way for co-workers to interact and make positive changes at home and in the workplace.

Miron Construction, a Wisconsin-based commercial contractor, integrated the Cool Choices game into its corporate sustainability initiatives. 220 employees participated and reported 3,500 unique sustainability actions connected with the game, according to a report from the Energy Center of Wisconsin. Post-game billing analysis showed annual electricity savings of approximately 400 kWh per player, in addition to meaningful actions that impacted transportation, water, waste and indoor environmental quality. The median electrical household savings was six percent, with the vast majority of sustainable practices continuing a year later.

Energy & Water Savings Kits for Employees

Custom, corporate-branded energy- and water-savings kits are another way to engage employees in meaningful behavioral changes at home and work, and can easily be integrated into a game such as Cool Choices. AM Conservation Group, an energy- and water-efficient product manufacturer, works with corporations to design custom-branded energy- and water-saving kits for employees. The kits, which are often used as a gateway to deeper actions, incorporate energy- and water-saving educational materials to enhance engagement. Common kit components (e.g., LED bulbs, water-saving showerheads and faucet aerators) have been thoroughly vetted by the energy-efficiency industry through third-party evaluations and technical resource manuals, and offer a reliable source of energy savings when installed by employees. Utilities typically include energy-savings kits to deepen savings in behavior-based energy-savings programs, making them ideally suited to corporate-based sustainability programs where verifiable savings can contribute to sustainability targets.

A recent white paper by Illume Advising, based on a review of 12 independent evaluations of utility-based energy kit programs implemented in 11 different jurisdictions across the United States, showed savings values per kit of up to 758 kWh for electricity savings and up to 73 therms for gas savings. Light bulbs were the most commonly installed measures (78 percent), followed closely by pipe insulation (73 percent), with showerheads coming in next (59 percent) and faucet aerators coming in last, with a still significant average verified installation rate of 51 percent. Installation rates can be improved when higher value items are included in the kits — such as LED light bulbs, smart power strips or water-saving “waterfall” style showerheads — and when installation support is provided, such as QR codes linking to installation videos or plumber’s tape included in the kit.

Make Changes Easy, Visible, Consistent & Engaging

Encouraging behavior-based sustainability changes for employees both at home and work is possible. The key is making the changes:

  • Easy (e.g., recycling bins under every desk and temperatures that take comfort into account),
  • Visible (e.g., mirror clings to remind employees to turn off the water or light switch stickers to encourage them to turn off lights)
  • Consistent (e.g., only purchasing recycled paper products for the office and installing power management software on all office computers), and
  • Engaging (e.g., gamification or product giveaways)

By integrating behavior-based programs into building-based energy-efficiency initiatives, a conservation-conscious workplace environment can be developed that includes more recycling advocates and fewer space heaters under the desks.


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