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Webinar: A HR and L&D roadmap for supporting employees in the climate emergency

As COP26 leaves its mark it's clear we are entering a pivotal time in terms of the climate change emergency, with implications for Learning & Development and HR leaders to support their employees through potential future change and disruption.

Here, the OU's Dr Volker Patent, Chartered Psychologist and Lecturer in the School of Psychology at The Open University, looks at how they might do that and draws on his study of managing workforces post Covid.

He took part in a recent webinar discussion to discuss the challenges with HR and L&D leaders – Dawn George from the Eden Project and Nicki Davey from Saltbox Training and Events.

Act as if we are in an emergency

In the past climate change promises have been made but targets missed. This cannot continue. HR and Learning and Development departments within industry cannot just pay lip service to the challenges of climate change and then delay their response. They must mobilise resources and ensure measure for curbing emissions are implemented. This needs leadership from CEOs to implement effective policy changes requiring investment in innovation, learning and systemic change.

Lessons we can learn from Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic has been an unprecedented milestone all over the world. The shift from face to face to virtual working, the organisational changes needed to support workers and other actions have been akin to mobilisation at a time of conflict.

Similar to the way that Covid made us challenge assumptions and prompted rapid action, so climate change requires us to do the same. Switching from working in an office to working from home was previously unthinkable. Yet achieving this has shown the possibility of change, the benefits, for example in reducing emissions from commuting. However, this has also exposed some of the potential problems, for example the risks and economic disadvantages for people on low incomes, women, and ethnic minorities.

So, while we can approach the climate change emergency in the same way - by mobilising our societies and organisations to respond rapidly and decisively - we also must ensure that such an approach is inclusive and prioritises social and economic justice.

Challenge assumptions, be radical

In terms of climate change we must look at strategies that reduce carbon emissions to net zero. A key step lies in decreasing the dependence on transportation based on fossil fuels. Covid challenges the view that work can only take place if people commute to and work in an office. The switch to digital working from home is evidence to the contrary.

We should encourage organisations to think more radically, looking at ways of increasing flexibility in the workplace, in terms of how, when and where work is organised. To help organisations achieve this they must have employees with the skills required to implement the necessary technical, social and managerial innovations of the future.

Be conscious of inequalities

Addressing the impact of climate change as well as the measures needed to mitigate it, requires sensitivity to the needs and vulnerabilities of employees. Viewed from psychological perspective disruption impacts across multiple levels, and such impacts are often unevenly distributed affecting people in pockets of inequality more than people with the means to absorb costs and impacts of climate change.

Therefore, changes to organisations need to be made carefully to avoid amplifying inequalities. As Covid has shown, while working from home seems attractive to many, for those without the necessary room space (e.g., young single people in shared accommodation/bedsit) it can be a more negative and isolating experience.

Inequality in this context is not just about economic disadvantage but includes potentially disproportionate impacts on mental health and stress. A recent phenomenon that is gaining recognition is the tendency of employees to experience eco anxiety, that is anxiety related to the impact of climate change as well as the anticipation of future impacts and one’s lack of ability to act and control the risks. Here it is important to consider that disadvantage restricts people’s agency and thus can amplify feelings of a lack of control. The complexities arising from such intersectionalities can be addressed by ensuring organisations have effective and just access to Flexible working, mental health support, and other measures for all employees, and not just for the senior management.

Strategies for change

Many organisations have green initiatives at work. Some use champions amongst their staff who can help persuade people at all levels of organisation to change. There is a danger that green initiatives appear as so-called "greenwashing", if the intention is not followed through. Measures such as divestment of pension funds from fossil fuels, reduction in travel via aviation for business use, are just some of the deeper measures that are needed. The action must be consistent with the message.

Organisations already have many of the techniques and approaches for managing change and innovation: agile project management, rapid design sprints for devising new measures for reducing carbon emissions by the tons, sustainability, and carbon audits. In some cases, organisations need to upskill and work with appropriate partners to help them implement strategies. Additional trends such as the growth of the digital economy require investment in training – The bigger picture needs to consider how societies can become more resilient through digital technologies while also becoming more sustainable without making large sections of the workforce redundant. Green jobs are likely to be a big part of the future economy but require investment in training and skills sooner rather than later.

Learn, from each other, and elsewhere

Organizations need strategies for encouraging people to take learning seriously, promoting a culture of learning, backed by appropriate funding in your organisation.

One of the key challenges for moving forward with climate change mitigation is in education, helping employees understand the changes needed, to get beyond reservations about how to do things differently.

Co-creation and collaboration are important at times of disruption as they pool resource, and thus offer access to skills, information and resource that are not possible otherwise. Corporate culture and values for example competition may go against the grain of this, and so part of the change process is about changing mindsets to engage more creatively and collaboratively within and between organisations, while reducing carbon emissions by every means possible.

It is not simply a matter of unlearning problematic behaviour. Change requires a commitment to alternative behaviours that are supported by the organisation through recognition and reward. In this way learning is not just about the new knowledge and skills needed, but about the way in which they are used to ensure organisations remain open to new learning in the face of uncertainty and volatility.

Set some new norms

Organisations have an important role to play in achieving net zero targets by changing the underlying norms that drive behaviour.

In analogy, think back to a time when n smoking was once commonplace in the workplace and how this changed. A key part of the plans to reduce smoking have been a mix of approaches backed by regulations e.g., changes in cigarette advertising, banning of smoking inside the workplace, designated smoking areas and positive health messaging amongst others) This has led to smoking becoming viewed as less normal and less socially acceptable.

Similarly, the use of fossil fuel intensive lifestyles could become less acceptable if norms around some of the behaviours were shifted in favour of carbon neutral practices (e.g., reduced commuting via personal transport in favour of public transport, avoidance of aviation for business travel, greater use of non-meat foods, etc). Organisations can be leaders in that area, by implementing new schemes for achieving carbon neutrality, divestment, lifestyle changes and flexible working.

Find out more

Explore how business and HR leaders can draw upon psychological resources as part of their crisis management strategy in this Whitepaper: Boosting HR's Psychological Literacy to Tackle Future Crises, co-authored by Dr Patent and published in association with HRZone.

Created amidst the backdrop of the pandemic, it illustrates how in a period where all of humanity is experiencing a variety of unprecedented challenges, we can be certain that further crises will significantly impact organisations in the near future – the climate emergency being one such example.

In this report you'll learn:

  • Why psychological impacts matter
  • How leaders should prepare for future crises
  • Five ways humans react to crises
  • How to better communicate through the next crisis
Download report


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