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Organizational Change
Sustainability and the Workforce:
Generational Differences and How to Prepare for 2020 and Beyond

How this pandemic will impact the future of workforce development is yet to be seen, but it truly serves as an opportunity for employers to scale the pace of evolution necessary for a more sustainable future.

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are no longer new concepts in the world of business. However, the authenticity and institutionalization of sustainability and CSR have yet to be fully leveraged to benefit businesses, communities and the environment. A number of drivers push businesses to integrate sustainability principles, and one of those drivers should be the changing workforce and employee expectations.

I began writing this article prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the past month, over 20 million people in the US have become unemployed — and many more changes are to come. How this pandemic will impact the future of workforce development is yet to be seen, but it truly serves as an opportunity to scale the pace of evolution necessary for a more sustainable future.

Prior to the pandemic, low unemployment across the country meant businesses were competing for qualified staff. A Wisconsin-based PBS report depicted this reality on a local level: “In Wisconsin, ‘Help Wanted’ is on virtually every restaurant window, storefront and city bus. With an aging population and few immigrants, the state could have a shortage of 45,000 workers by 2024, which could pose a threat to business.”

This swift change in the workforce and employment as we know it has offered a pivotal consideration for individuals to reconsider their career trajectories. I’ve heard this primarily from Millennials — the largest generation currently represented in the US workforce. With many workers now isolated at home, now is a crucial time for leaders in the private sector to accelerate their sustainability initiatives in order to engage and retain employees moving forward.

The numbers behind an evolving workforce

In this new normal of uncertainty, it is time to familiarize yourself with the values of your future employees and to build business sustainability strategies around them. According to Employee Benefits News, in 2017, employee turnover costs employers 33 percent of an employee’s annual salary. With about 40 percent of Millennials expecting to leave their current job within two years, those costs add up quickly.

In addition to Millennials, employers need to plan for future generations of workers such as Gen Z’ers. Described as authenticity-obsessed, motivated by meaningful work and the most entrepreneurial generation yet, Gen Z will soon make up 30 percent of the US workforce. In fact, numerous factors have influenced and will continue to influence this generation and others, as well as what they expect from employers and their workplaces. Factors such as the already-felt climate crisis, economic volatility, and instant global connectedness to humanity have systematically impacted the values of younger generations, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Looking inward to push change outward

My Sustainable Management program team at UW Extended Campus is plugged into the needs and stories of Millennials and Gen Z’ers on a daily basis. In fact, I recently had the opportunity to guest lecture at UW-Madison in a sustainable business course, and the lecture hall was filled with Gen Z’ers. I’ve lectured in this course for a handful of years, but this time was different. The students were actively engaged from the moment they walked in. When questions or comments arose during the lecture, they didn’t hesitate to raise their hands and prompt discussion. Even more, they were opinionated, diplomatic and respectful (lessons for all!); and they were genuinely concerned about how their career trajectory would align with their personal values. I left that lecture energized and confident that we as a global community can find solutions to our most massive systemic problems.

Sustainability and CSR are directly and indirectly important for businesses. Integrating these principles into your business strategy will help you better attract, engage and retain great talent. However, it should be noted that while we often focus on how Millennials and Gen Z’ers are changing the typical workplace, sustainability isn’t an exclusive concern to those born after 1980. Employees across all generations increasingly care about sustainability in the workplace, through supply chains, in marketing materials, and more.

If you want to build resiliency and a competitive edge in your organization given the changing generational expectations, here are some ways to start:

1. Communicate updates of your sustainability commitments.

According to a 2016 Cone Communications study, 88 percent of Millennials want employers to share details of their CSR commitments. This means employees want to be in the know when it comes to decision making. You can do this by being transparent about what you’re strategically planning, what isn’t being prioritized (and why), and what employees can expect from your sustainability goals moving forward. A number of reporting structures exist for organizations to consistently and accurately report their sustainability progress (ex: Global Reporting Initiative, B Corp Assessment, CDP).

2. Be active. Be honest. Be real.

Since the world has momentarily slowed down due to COVID-19, now is the time for business and organizational leaders to take a beat and consider what they want the future of their business to look like. When disruption occurs, put strategies and game plans into place that will allow you (and all stakeholders) to emerge stronger on the other side.

When you’re up and running again, engage your employees in an honest way. Be upfront with them about your sustainability struggles and where they can help find solutions for your organization. Be real with what you share internally and externally. There is greater harm in putting out false claims of sustainability achievements than being transparent about your successes and where you’re still evolving.

3. Authentically engage your employees!

Earth Week celebrations and employee competitions are great ways to start; however, employees are looking for meaningful ways to engage their personal values with colleagues and organizational leaders year-round. Leverage this enthusiasm and yearning for meaning in the workplace for strategic organizational benefit.

Nearly 90 percent of the Millennials that Cone surveyed in 2016 said they wanted opportunities to help their employers reach CSR/sustainability goals; to provide feedback and offer solutions to these efforts; and to participate in hands-on, environmental activities in the workplace. The lesson here? Listen to your employees, and build a space where they feel heard. This can inform your next steps in sustainability planning; and you may be surprised by how many employees and peers will be up for streamlining the process by pitching in some time and ideas.

4. Catch up, then lead.

You may feel like you’ve been jolted ahead several years with your telecommunication plan and remote work policy during this pandemic. Utilize that same leap forward and flexible mindset to elevate your sustainability commitments. The day will come when integrating a better way of doing business (through a lens of sustainability) will no longer be optional, but vital. Those who adapt sooner have countless competitive advantages and will help chart the course for those still on the fence. Get inspired through taking a BCorp assessment or survey through our Green Master’s Program application.

A not-so-distant tomorrow

What is important to understand during this uncertain time is how humanity collectively experiencing a pandemic has shined a light on systemic issues — such as the climate crisis, inequality, supply chains and more. Now and increasingly into the near future, employees will look for employers who will understand and align with their motivations beyond their everyday work.

It is advantageous for organizational leaders to use this unprecedented time to slow down, think deeply; and plan how they can attract, engage, and retain talent to build toward a better future.