PUBLIC POV: How to Use Corporate Culture to Create Social Impact

“Fluff” Works

Corporate culture helps the bottom line — and the planet.

To the hardened, experienced businessperson, today’s offices may feel like more of a kids’ clubhouse than a legitimate place of business. Free lunches, ping pong tables, ‘beer Thursdays’, naps pods … the list goes on.

But what if I told you that all that nap-podding, craft beer-drinking, ping pong-playing “fluff” (or culture, as I like to call it) is actually worth something? Consider:

  • According to a growing body of research, strong corporate culture enhances revenue growth. In this study, companies with a strong commitment to corporate culture had average revenue growth of 682% compared with revenue growth of 166% at firms which did not.
  • Employees’ overall ratings of their company’s qualities (collaboration, work environment, mission and value alignment) are 20% higher at companies with strong cultures.
  • Being named a Best Place to Work is associated with a noticeable bump in stock value.

But what if I told you workplace culture could also be leveraged to create social impact?

We took on this thesis at Public Inc. this Summer with our Plastic Free July Feature.

Plastic Free July is a annual global challenge that aims to educate and reduce the consumption of single use plastic items.

As part of our regular culture “features”, we rolled it out to our Publicans using a four category structure, building week to week. Each week we issued a new challenge, including information on why we felt this issue was important. At the end of the week, we drew names for prizes (i.e incentives) that supported employees’ new plastic free lifestyle.

Week 1: Evaluating Plastic Use

We started the challenge out nice and slow with a full week just dedicated to observing our habits with plastic. This included a lot of info on the effects of plastic use on our environment and a great quiz from our new friends at Plastic Free July.

Why It Worked: Easing people on board prevents them from getting them defensive or seeing this as a chore. Community impact only works if most of the community is invested in the cause.

The Challenges: People were still defensive. Lots of excuses, particularly when it came to time and convenience. We did a few one-on-ones to come up with solutions and support instead of shaming people into action.

Week 2: Discovering Plastic Alternatives

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Having staff exposed to easy alternatives (via comparison lists and some in-person examples) was a great way to get them pumped up to go out and buy their own coffee travel mugs, plastic free food storage containers and canvas bags (hey, it’s still a consumer world, what can I say?).

Why It Worked: Doing the legwork and showing people exactly what they need and where they can get it – often, online (make sure to ask for plastic free packaging though!) – is a really easy way to get the community invested. A big chunk of our staff went out on the search for the perfect reusable coffee cup and were proud to show it off to other staff and tote it around to coffee shops. The momentum is building.

Challenges: Everyone has different needs and priorities, so we found that even with a long list of plastic free alternatives, some people still had requests for other items. This was kinda fun because it meant some research on my end, which got staff even more invested because we were “hunting” for their individual solution (all of which we found).

Week 3: 100% Plastic Free Week

*Before you criticize me for not making every week in ‘Plastic Free July’ 100% plastic free, let me explain: going from a normal western standard of plastic use to absolutely no plastic is 1) pretty close to impossible and 2) most definitely close enough to impossible that the average person wouldn’t even try.

This week was designed to up the ante. By this time our crew was aware of how much plastic they used, knew the facts on the environmental impact of that plastic, had a wealth of alternatives, and had begun integrating changes in their behaviors. So, of course, we wanted to challenge staff not to use a single plastic thing for one full week. We wanted them to see that, even though small steps have been made (and celebrated), our world still has a long way to go before we see the end of plastic use.

Why It Worked: It didn’t. We went too far and alarmed people with the idea of completely removing plastic from their lives. This is the only week I would change, because the only way it could be said to have “worked” was by making everyone’s life too hard in going totally plastic-free too soon.  Lesson learned.

Challenges: It was too intense. In the future I would substitute this with a week of how to be in social situations without using plastic (e.g., take out, parties, weddings, gifts, etc.).

Week 4: Plastic Free Community

This week we wanted to extend our impact to our community outside of the office. We promoted external events such as beach clean ups and litter walks, and gave staff resources on how to speak to local shops (kindly) about reducing plastic. At the same time, Starbucks announced plans to eliminate plastic straws, which added to the buzz.

Why It Worked: It made the cause that we had been working toward real outside of Public, which gave more weight to the investments that the Public community had made. It also led to a ton of great conversations with friends, baristas, shop owners, etc., which spread the message further.

Challenges: In hindsight, I wish we had tracked the community activities and conversations we had. Everyday a Publican would come to me or send out an AllStaff email sharing their experience taking the plastic-free message to the outside community.

The outcomes of our Plastic Free July were more than we hoped for, with high engagement across all staff levels, increasing with each week. Staff remained engaged and excited about creating impact and actively looked for ways to incorporate that into their work. People who normally don’t work together connected by sharing tips and ‘hacks’ to reduce plastic waste. Many staff scoured the internet to share interesting articles on the future of plastic reduction and how we as individuals and an organization play a part. The sense of community was strengthened and the impact on plastic reduction was felt and seen. Next time we’ll measure to see how we follow-through in other months.”

And with that, I leave you with some tips to create social impact in your office community.

  1. Support
    • Always take the positive route. “You can help fix this” instead of “This needs to be fixed”. Empower people to make the difference.
  2. Provide a Reason
    • Why are staff going to care? Is it for the environment? For animals? You have to give a reason (supported by statistics) on why this issue matters. Your staff community might have different values than another organization, so make sure you know your audience first.
  3. Incentivize
    • I didn’t talk a lot about the incentives in the weekly breakdown, but there were tangible prizes (beeswax wraps, coffee tumblers, canvas bags, etc.). This helped incentivize in the short term, but the long term incentive really comes from recognizing the work that the community is putting in. Taking someone aside and congratulating them on purchasing their first bamboo toothbrush, or thanking them for sending out that article on Ikea’s plastic reduction plan creates a lasting incentive and a message that positive effort is recognized and valued.

So, fluff-shmuff. I do believe this is what business traditionalists call a “win win”.

Written by Amanda Javier, PUBLIC’s Culture and Operations Specialist

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