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Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 1: Action Fields for Designers

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – March 17, 2011

In recent years, companies have come under increasing pressure to consider and report on how sustainable their operations are. Being a forerunner in this field, SAP publishes annual sustainability reports that describe the company's efforts to improve its sustainability record for the respective year and also highlight changes. As a software company, SAP has two-fold ambitions: Firstly, it strives to become a sustainability champion and a role model for customers, and, secondly, it offers a wide range of software solutions to customers that aim to help them improve their own sustainability records. On its company Website, SAP illustrates its sustainability solutions in the form of a sustainability map. On this map, one box is labeled "sustainable work force." Initially, I assumed that this refers to how sustainably a company's workforce acts. However, my assumption was more or less wrong, as I soon learned and as you will find out below. Therefore, I will begin this series of six articles by clarifying the relevant terms and distinguishing between a sustainable work force and the sustainable behavior of a workforce. The latter concept will be the sole subject of my article series, however, and it will also be approached from a designer's point of view.

Not surprisingly, a number of influencing factors determine how sustainably a company's work force acts. In the remainder of this first article, I will briefly touch on some of the important factors and point out action items for designers. In three follow-up articles, I will ask in more detail how designers – particularly UI designers – can contribute to meeting the challenge of making the behavior of a company's workforce and, thus, a company's operations overall more sustainable.


Sustainable Workforce versus Sustainable Behavior of the Workforce...

First, I would like to point out that a sustainable workforce is different from a workforce that exhibits sustainable behavior. The meaning of the second phrase should be evident, but what does the term "sustainable work" force mean? On the Sustainable Workforce Website, authors Ellen Ernst Kossek and Peter Berg from the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University provide the following definition:

We define a sustainable workforce as one where individuals are productively employed in jobs that sustain psychological and economic well-being over time as well as balance the diverse interests of employers, workers, and families. In a sustainable workforce, employees are given opportunities to continuously develop and renew their knowledge, and enhance employability, well-being and energy to thrive on and off the job over their careers.

In short, we might regard this concept as a company's way of caring for its workforce in order to achieve optimal conditions, both from the employers' and the employees' position. Peter Graf, SAP's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) offers a similar view of a sustainable workforce in his blog entry "Our View on a Sustainable Workforce" on the SAP Developer Network (2009). However, his view also includes sustainable behavior:

  • Companies need processes to find, nurture, and retain a skilled workforce that can support business and sustainability objectives. At the same time, companies must address labor compliance, workforce planning, and diversity and talent management in order to increase productivity and support sustainability strategies.

Personally, I would prefer to keep these aspects separate – at least in the context of this article series.

Note: Further definitions, a short and a long one, can be found in SAP's sustainability map on the company Website and in SAP's 2009 sustainability report. The latter highlights the fact that employees take a company's sustainability performance in consideration when making employment choices.


Fields of Action

In its efforts to make the behavior of its workforce more sustainable, SAP addresses the following focus topics: commute, travel, energy, paper, and social. For the purpose of this article, I would like to cluster the topics somewhat differently: (1) commute and travel, (2) energy, resource, and waste management (including paper management), and (3) organization of distributed teams (including social aspects).

Commute & Travel

Today, most employees commute on a regular basis and many of them use their cars. Only a few walk or cycle to work. This kind of commuting behavior places a burden not only on the commuters themselves, but also on the environment. Consequently, both employees and employers are looking for alternative transportation solutions that reduce carbon footprint, cost, and time and that minimize the need for commuting in the first place.

Example: Commuting was responsible for about 10% of SAP's total carbon footprint in 2009.

SAP makes the following proposals (adapted by me) to its employees to improve the situation:

  • Ride-sharing: Commute with colleagues by car pool or van pool.
  • Public transit or shuttle: Use local public transportation or an SAP-provided shuttle service, where available.
  • Walk or bike (I would like to add or "e-bike ," which is what I do most of the year).
  • Telecommute: Work from home or from a local teleworking or remote office center.

Travel management is another area in which costs and the carbon footprint could be lowered, and for good reason. In the sustainability map on its Website, SAP states that travel costs can amount to as much as 30% of total employee expenses and that they also represent a significant proportion of a company's carbon footprint.

Example: Business flights contributed more than 25% to SAP's total carbon footprint in 2009, making them the number one source of carbon emissions at SAP.

Alternatives to business travel comprise:

  • Use of information and communication technologies (ICT): phone calls, e-mails, chat, phone and video conferences, wikis and other social media, and many more, often used in combination or alternatively
  • Reorganization of teams so that less coordination/communication and, thus, less travel is required (see below)

It is also important to note that travel behavior is impacted less by the behavior of individual employees than by management decisions, such as a company's travel policy.

I will place the items "telecommuting" or "teleworking" and the use of ICT for connecting people who are distributed over different – often distant – locations on my agenda for the second article. The latter item has already been a topic at HCI conferences for some considerable time.

Resource, Energy, and Waste Management

I do not want to go into detail here, because this is a huge field that is packed with action items. With respect to the sustainability of a company's workforce, not too many action items are in the core domain of designers, particularly UI designers. Nevertheless, I did find one action item for designers and I present it below.

Paper management is an example of this action field. While it is relevant for a company, it has a lower impact than many other factors: In SAP's sustainability report for 2009, paper contributed less than 4% to SAP's total carbon footprint. Nonetheless, in large companies, 4% can mean a lot in absolute numbers.

By the way, I have observed that my own paper consumption at work has decreased dramatically in recent years. However, reading on the screen is still no alternative to reading on paper: I find a lot more errors when reading on paper than when reading on screen – and many people report the same phenomenon. Thus, there is still a great need for paper, but it should be used with consideration.

Many items in this action field relate to organizational aspects and human habits. I will turn to the first aspect in the next paragraph. Human habits and their effect on sustainability have numerous facets, at home as well as at work: shutting computers down at the end of the business day, using stairs instead of lifts, turning the lights on and off, using paper considerately, and so on. Some of these issues can be successfully dealt with through central decisions, such as setting all printers to printing on both sides of a sheet of paper, or installing movement sensors in restrooms to control the lighting. Other issues require a great deal of ongoing effort in persuading employees to change their behaviors. One of these is the afore-mentioned use of stairs instead of lifts. SAP is currently attempting to persuade employees in this direction by displaying relevant posters near the elevators.

My agenda for the second article will contain the item "persuasive design." This term denotes design approaches that aim to persuade people to change their behavior in a desired direction. I hit on this design topic at HCI conferences only recently.

Organizational Issues: Structure, Distribution, and Management of Teams

In a global company like SAP, organizational structures and decisions can have a huge impact on the company's overall sustainability. However, most of this is determined by management or even board-level decisions and lies beyond the influence of the workforce itself. This action field is probably also the one in which designers have the least impact – unless they move into management themselves.

There is one more issue with organizational decisions: Their impact on sustainability can only be observed indirectly using data from other areas such as travel and commuting, or resources, energy, and waste management. While this makes it harder to assess their impact, the basics should be evident: Distributed teams that cooperate in a tightly connected fashion require a great deal of coordination. This calls for frequent communication and often involves extensive travel activities. While ICT can satisfy specific communication needs, it cannot substitute the need for travel in all cases. As many sources report, personal contact is mandatory for establishing trust between team members particularly during early project phases – and trust is a prerequisite for a project's success. The example of SAP UX also highlights that there are limits to the use of synchronous ICT: With teams spread all over the world, from the USA to Europe, India, and China, it is impossible to have an all-hands meeting that all SAP UX members can attend in person. On the other hand, a global all-hands meeting with about 250 team members meeting in one location is cost prohibitive.

One possible organizational strategy for making a company's workforce act more sustainably is to reduce dependencies between members of distributed teams or between teams in different locations that need to cooperate closely. Another one would be to generally follow a more modular approach and assign lower-level responsibilities and tasks locally and only higher-level ones at a global level and in a distributed fashion.

All in all, this action field does not add new items to my agenda for the second article, but it emphasizes the need for solutions for the items that are already on my list, particularly the considerate use of ICT.


Final Word

This, the first in a series of six articles, attempts to clarify the difference between the terms "sustainable workforce" and "a workforce that behaves sustainably" and also looks at possible fields of action for making the behavior of a company's workforce more sustainable. In the following three articles, I will investigate in more detail how designers – particularly UI designers can contribute to reaching this challenging goal.




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