4 psychological factors influencing digital sustainability at work
The digital workplace is becoming increasingly well understood as a means of helping organizations to reduce their overall carbon footprint and environmental impact. Remote work and virtual meetings can reduce business travel, paperless operations lessen paper and ink waste, and smart technologies can improve energy efficiency – to mention a few of the positive impacts. For example, in one study, remote working was found to reduce the carbon footprint of work by 58%.1 But, environmentally conscious organizations are also looking at the environmental impact of the digital workplace itself – relating to, for example, digital clutter or device disposal – and finding ways to reduce this.
A key step on this journey is understanding the psychological aspects that can influence employee adoption of sustainability efforts. In the first of this two-part blog series, digital workplace expert Annette Corbett analyses four psychological factors that digital workplace teams need to consider as they seek to build awareness and new habits among the workforce in support of the organization’s environmental goals. In the second part, she looks further at the environmental impact of the digital workplace and some approaches to reducing its carbon footprint.
Perceptions of climate change range from being intensely personal through to ambivalence, with no one-size-fits-all belief. Scholars from prominent universities in both the US and UK have recently highlighted the importance of psychological research in helping to improve initiatives to mitigate climate change. Such research can provide insights into both perceptions of climate change as well as the behavioural change required to protect against it.2 Indeed, scholars Lorraine Whitmarsh and Stuart Capstick have argued that “understanding public perceptions of climate change is critical in order to develop effective communication strategies, democratic policies and socially robust technologies.” 3
In this blog post, we explore:
- eco-anxiety experienced by employees
- employee perceptions of climate change
- psychological blockers to digital sustainability
- the importance of social influence and eco-transition.
An understanding of these psychological factors is foundational for digital workplace professionals as they look to fold a sustainability focus into their strategy and goals.
1. Addressing employee eco-anxiety
The constant state of flux and change inside organizations – not least from digital transformation – can cause considerable anxiety for employees. A Microsoft study found that 61% of employees are anxious about business change programmes. In this context, it is therefore imperative that digital sustainability initiatives are framed as positive action, rather than just yet more change.
Against this backdrop, general change anxiety can be amplified by feelings of ‘eco-anxiety’ when it comes to discussing matters of climate change. Digital workplace practitioners should be aware that focusing on digital sustainability initiatives may well trigger these existential fears amongst their employees, and so fold in support and resources to their change programmes.
Anne Therese Gennari, founder of The Climate Optimist4, works with HR managers to positively shift climate conversations and would like organizations to consider the impact of eco-anxiety on its employees: “We are undergoing the biggest shift humanity has ever gone through. We don’t ever talk about how to emotionally deal with that.”
In fact, a 2022 census report found that 74% of adults in Britain are worried about climate change and that demographic doesn’t appear to be a differentiator5, and a global study of 10,000 children found that respondents across all countries were worried about climate change, with 59% very or extremely worried and 84% at least moderately worried.6
Gennari emphasizes the importance of helping employees to shift their perspective to reduce eco-anxiety: “OK, I can’t change the world. No one can. But I can change my world, and if I change my world, I’m going to start changing the world around me.”4
Sustainability advisory firm ERM suggests these four steps to support employees with eco- or climate anxiety7:
- Assess employee health and wellbeing, and weave ways to improve these into the fabric of the organization.
- Create channels and forums to help employees find the language to understand and voice their concerns about climate change.
- Identify ‘wellbeing mentors’ who can act as a connection point for employees to become more comfortable about sharing their concerns.
- Ensure that employees have access to resources to support them build resilience and take positive action related to their experience of eco-anxiety.
2. Exploring employee perceptions of climate change
Understanding employee perceptions of climate change is critical to generate engagement and develop effective communications and training as part of any digital sustainability initiatives. In a recent DWG survey, just over half (52%) of survey respondents were not concerned about the contribution of their digital workplace to their organization’s overall carbon footprint.
The intangibility of climate change creates a psychological distance to it. This can fuel the belief that climate change occurs only in locations remote from where ‘I’ am for many and that it lacks relevance to one’s own social group, even while the impacts are increasingly being felt around the globe.
Furthermore, while sustainability efforts inside organizations have focused quite extensively on paper reduction initiatives, there may have been little emphasis on, for instance, reducing digital clutter. As one survey respondent commented: “I’d never thought about the environmental impact of the digital workplace until this study.” It can be a leap of understanding to grasp the impact of digital information which tends to be viewed as intangible rather than having to be stored somewhere on hardware that takes energy to produce and run. It is therefore important to approach this topic as you might any change initiative: expect to encounter both champions and laggards, as well as a potential lack of awareness or understanding.
To dig further into how the workforce perceives climate change, it can be helpful to explore employee awareness and perceptions. In a somewhat unlikely parallel, the Five Stages of Awareness marketing model, which tracks the stages of a customer journey (developed in the 1960s by advertising copywriter Eugene Schwartz)8, can provide a helpful framework:
|Stage of awareness
|Unaware of (or unconvinced by) the problem
|– Find out what your audience knows.
– Understand and identify different values and views.
– Challenge ‘fake’ beliefs with simple, factual alternatives.
– Build awareness of the problem by making it relatable: a present issue (rather than in the distant future).
– Use engaging but rudimentary language.
|Knows the problem but is unsure (or unconvinced by) any potential solutions
|– Find frames that fit audience needs.
– Relate carbon and environmental impact directly to workplace activities and practices.
– Create an ‘aha’ moment.
– Empower audience with solutions-focused messaging.
– Use metrics to contextualize impacts.
|Knows of some solutions but not aware of the approach proposed as part of an organizational strategy
|– Highlight and socialize proposed solutions.
– Empower the audience with small but tangible tasks.
– Tie in accountability with confidence of the collective efforts of employees.
|Knows about the approach proposed by the organizational strategy but is unconvinced it will solve the issue (and may be in direct conflict with an employee’s ideals)
|– Use storytelling and narrative forms to connect with the audience.
– Include personas or characters in everyday workplace situations and problem resolution to make the story more compelling.
– Integrate straightforward, simple facts into the storytelling.
|Ready to accept the climate data and adopt/evangelize the suggested strategic approach
|– Establish a community of ‘change champions’ to drive a domino effect across the organization, supported by a training and awards programme.
Using the Five Stages of Awareness model to understand employee perceptions is also a great way of reinforcing your organization’s commitment to digital sustainability and illustrating that the effort to achieve it is a collective one. At this stage you are generating interest, intimating the possibilities of a community effort and gathering essential information to help tailor training and engagement sessions that meet people where they are.
3. Psychological blockers to digital sustainability
Several psychological blockers to climate change have been identified and these must also be considered as part of your communications, training and awareness programmes:
- Perceived lack of control: People may feel that they have little control over the causes or consequences of climate change, leading to a sense of helplessness and lack of action.
- Confirmation bias: People tend to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs and attitudes, and ignore or reject information that challenges them. This can create a ‘filter bubble’ in which people are exposed only to information that supports their preconceptions.
- Social norms: People’s attitudes and behaviours are strongly influenced by social norms, such as what others in their social groups think and do. This can create a ‘herding effect’ in which people conform to the behaviours of others, even if those behaviours are not sustainable.
- Distance: Climate change is often seen as a distant problem that does not affect people directly, leading to a lack of urgency and action. This is known as the ‘psychological distance’ effect.
One other key psychological consideration is that of habit. To be digitally sustainable, we need to break old habits and replace them with new ones. The Four Laws of Behaviour Change provide a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones, with each law acting as a lever that influences human behaviour9:
- Make it obvious.
- Make it attractive.
- Make it easy.
- Make it satisfying.
Daniel Grigsby, Digital Sustainability Program Lead at Valtech, suggests there are currently more questions than answers: “The lines are blurred around whose responsibility it is to drive that habit change; individual, organization or product – where does the buck stop? Do we use policies, regulations, governance, or should technical providers change the affordances or capabilities of their systems?” In practice, organizations will use a mixture of these approaches and an understanding of the potential psychological blockers can help inform an effective programme of communication and change.
4. Social influence and eco-transition
The shift towards environmentally friendly practices and systems necessitates winning hearts and minds, as well as understanding how best to mobilize digital sustainability. As part of this, it’s important to consider the power of social influence and community.
An example of social influence is evidenced in the Swedish movement ‘flygskam’, which roughly translates to ‘flight shame’10 – the feeling of climate guilt associated with airline travel that developed media notoriety in 2017, in no small part due to climate activist Greta Thunberg. As a result of flygskam, pre-pandemic Sweden witnessed train ticket sales trump that of flights and the launch of the Flight Free Campaign, which has ratcheted the support of thousands since its inception in 2019.11
Molly Anglin, Global Community Manager at digital consulting firm Valtech, believes it is more difficult to talk about or embrace sustainability initiatives “when no one else is doing that in the open”. For example, there may be concern about conflicting with the interests of the organization (in the absence of clarity to the contrary). Molly is an advocate of ‘working out loud’ and nurturing conversations about sustainability to strengthen engagement and sponsorship:
“We challenge biases, including the notion that employees are alone in their concern about climate change, by bringing data into the conversation and providing virtual spaces with active community management. We use these communities daily to discuss concerns, share relevant news and co-create action strategies. Working with our Global Communications and People & Culture teams at key intervals throughout the year, we share emissions data and updates from our network of sustainability champions through reports, livestreams, email newsletters, and more. We also produce and share high-quality videos from our leadership team, investors, partners and clients, underscoring the urgency of the situation, the relevance to our business and the importance of action. Employees at Valtech spend most of their time working remotely, and our sustainability team actively measures GHG emissions generated when working from home. In light of this reality about how we work, we give Valtechies community space to swap ideas about climate action at home… where we chat about renewable energy providers, heat pumps and solar installations, and help each other make smart, sustainable choices.”
Opportunities for community and conversation can help to raise awareness of sustainability issues and in addressing eco-anxiety. Such support networks are critical given that, according to Anne Therese Gennari, we are transitioning through “the biggest shift humanity has ever seen” – an incredible statement as we continue to deal with the after-effects of COVID-19.4 But what did we learn from the pandemic that can help address the different psychological factors influencing digital sustainability?
In a striking parallel to climate change, renowned expert in grief, David Kessler, described the pandemic as “a more broadly imagined future. There is a storm coming. There is something bad out there. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it and it breaks our sense of safety”, while conceding that this isn’t something felt collectively, rather in pockets of groups of people who are “united in something new, felt on micro levels”. And, if further evidence were needed of just how human this experience is, Kessler likens it to ‘anticipatory grief’, an emotion experienced prior to the death of someone – or something – beloved.
The British Psychological Society believes that COVID-19 was the catalyst for shared identities, shaped through common experience: “Other individuals become part of my collective self; their perspectives and their concerns become mine. Shared identity thereby becomes the basis for coordination and mutual support”.12 This shared identity thrives under leadership that is inclusive and offers practical support; which ensures adherence to restrictions due to a collective interest; and provides physical and mental health benefits since “membership of social groups is a powerful prophylactic against a wide range of mental and physical disorders”.
The article goes further, suggesting that the government may have been more effective had it worked in a trusting partnership with people, rather than taking a paternalistic stance. Again, this furnishes invaluable insights into how to mobilize a grass roots initiative to shift climate-related behaviours, including at work.
In the second part of this blog series, Annette moves from elucidating the psychological factors involved in improving digital sustainability to understanding the environmental impact of the digital workplace and approaches to reducing this.
Fieldwork was conducted in March–April 2023. DWG surveyed 798 managers and employees across the US and UK via the research platform Prolific.
Thanks to Sarah Walkley PhD and Molly Anglin of Valtech, for the invaluable input to this blog series.
1 Yanqiu Tao, et al. Climate mitigation potentials of teleworking are sensitive to changes in lifestyle and workplace rather than ICT usage. PNAS: Environmental Sciences, Sep 18, 2023 (www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2304099120, accessed Oct 28, 2023).
3 Lorraine Whitmarsh, Stuart Capstick. Perceptions of climate change. In: Susan Clayton, Christie Manning (eds.). Psychology and climate change: Human perceptions, impacts, and responses (pp. 13–33). Elsevier Academic Press, 2018 (shop.elsevier.com/books/psychology-and-climate-change/clayton/978-0-12-813130-5, accessed Oct 28, 2023).
6 Caroline Hickman, et al. Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. Lancet Planetary Health, 2021, 5(12): e863–873 (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2542519621002783, accessed Oct 28, 2023).
7 Marilee Robertson, Karen Aitchison. Four key actions to support employees through climate anxiety. ERM, Insights (www.erm.com/insights/four-key-actions-to-support-employees-through-climate-anxiety, accessed Oct 28, 2023).
12 Jolanda Jetten, et al. 10 lessons for dealing with a pandemic. British Psychological Society, Jul 7, 2020(www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/10-lessons-dealing-pandemic, accessed Oct 28, 2023).
Categorised in: Digital workplace