Every day at the office, employees at your company face choices with implications for the environment and the company budget. "Am I going to power down my PC during my lunch break - or leave it running?" "Should I print this entire twelve-page document, single-sided and in colour - or just print the four pages I need, double-sided and in black and white?"

A surprising assortment of factors will influence their decision, and many of them may be based on groundwork you've laid for them.

Yes, there are good technology solutions out there, such as PC-power management tools and print-monitoring software, that can force employees to make some prudent green choices. Ultimately, though, technology can only do so much to combat the kind of wasteful tendencies that become ingrained in employees' daily routine. More often than not, those tendencies result from a company's culture more than a person's aversion to be greener.

Fortunately, companies are finding ways to encourage employees not only to be more mindful of the choices they make but to truly drive change that leads to a meaningful corporate-cultural shift toward sustainability.

"People are inspired and intrigued by a culture that they see as having creativity and meaning and a higher purpose," says Christina Page, director of climate and energy strategy at Yahoo. "You can inspire your employees by tapping into their creativity and desire to make the world a better place."

Waste scales

At first blush, it might seem that the environmental effect of printing a couple of extra colour copies is unimportant or that leaving a system or lights or A/C on for a few extra hours is negligible.

Thing is, small acts of waste can scale significantly. Let's say a non-green choice costs 50 cents, be it in paper, ink, watts, gasoline, whatever. If you have 500 employees, and each makes just one non-green choice per day, you're looking at $250 being tossed in the can daily. At the end of the year, that's $62,500 worth of wasted resources (assuming 50 five-day work weeks). That affects your bottom line and your company's impact on the environment.

Planting green seeds

So what are companies doing to foster a greener mindset among employees? Let's look at Fujitsu. The company last year launched an internal programme called Eco2Cost, through which the company trains employees on the environmental and financial impact of conservation measures, then encourages them to submit specific proposals to cut waste through reduction, reuse, and recycling.

The programme is based on a concept called Mottainai, used by Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. It means "how wasteful that we do not take advantage of the full value of things."

According to Richard McCormack, senior VP of marketing at Fujitsu, employees' proposals aren't ignored, set aside, and forgotten; rather, they've resulted in a meaningful cultural shift where individuals feel empowered to speak up and implement good ideas, resulting in greener, less wasteful practices.

For example, one employee announced to his peers and managers that he would no longer print out colour PowerPoint slides for meetings; rather, they were told to bring their laptops to follow presentations. The effort has snowballed, and the result is a reduction in paper waste and expensive colour ink throughout the company.

What might happen at your own company if, out of the blue, you told a manager, a VP, or someone higher on the totem pole that you weren't going to print up slides anymore? Or, if you happen to be a VP or manager or atop the pole, what would you think or do if someone who reports to you politely told you to bring a laptop to a meeting instead of expecting print-outs? Sure, it might fly. Then again, without a policy or support from higher up to encourage that kind of behaviour, the proposal might never hit the table to begin with, or it might result in some snickering, a definitive "No, you'll do it the way we've always done it," a reprimand - or worse.

Tapping knowledge from the trenches

The implications of fostering a greener mindset among employees throughout your organisation can be substantial. Someone in the IT trenches, for instance, might have insight you don't. Who would (or could) know better than someone in IT if 20 percent of your servers could simply be unplugged? Yet without being encouraged to hunt down and reveal that kind of waste, he or she might not think to offer up that information - or might not feel comfortable doing so.

Similarly, someone in the facilities department could have insight as to where you're wasting money - say, cooling the datacentre - yet again, might not think to advocate changes. Whoever is responsible for ordering supplies such as paper and printer ink might notice that consumption of pricey colour ink has steadily risen but wouldn't think to mention it. You get the idea.

Rewards for reducing waste

You may see your bosses fight once in a while - but how often do they don inflatable body suits and engage in a Sumo wrestling match? If you work at Yahoo, the answer is, "Once, at least."

A match between Yahoo founders Jerry Yang and David Filo took place on Earth Day last year as a reward to Yahoo employees for cutting waste by 20 percent the week prior. How did they manage the feat? They "turned off lights in conference rooms, took the stairs, made do with less air conditioning, avoided printing or went double-sided, used mugs, ditched their commutes for public transportation or carpools, and ate a little less meat," according to Yahoo corporate blog editor Nicki Dugan.

The lesson, of course, is that rewards can be an effective means of encouraging greener behaviour - and those rewards needn't be monetary. Verbal appreciation, public recognition, or just plain fun can be effective, too.

That Sumo bout is but one example of the various rewarding initiatives at Yahoo aimed inspiring employees there to embrace more sustainable practices, according to Yahoo's Page. Like Fujitsu, Yahoo sets aside premium parking spots for employees who carpool. The company also encouraged engineers to focus on projects that had green or otherwise socially positive implications during it most recent Hack Day - a quarterly event during which engineers may spend 24 hours working on fun projects of their choice.

Techniques for encouraging greener practices

The Canadian Center for Pollution Prevention has some great techniques to promote greener behaviour among employees. Here's a sampling.

  1. 1. Set clear targets. Establishing a specific, attainable, measurable goal, such as "cutting energy waste by 20 percent in a week" is easier to get behind than a vague objective such as "Let's cut waste significantly this year."
  2. 2. Connect behaviour with results. By sharing energy and waste figures with staff, you show how their actions make a difference. One interesting project currently under way at Yahoo to encourage waste reduction among employees: The Green Screen. Set up in the cafeteria in the Yahoo's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, the Green Screen lets users view and compare the energy consumption stats, in real time, of Yahoo's two buildings in terms of watts, CO2 emissions, or costs. "Our hope - since moving to a period of year where electricity in California gets interesting - is that we'll be able to link that information on the Green Screen to energy response initiatives on campus," says Yahoo's Page.
  3. 3. Provide concrete examples. Offer specific guidance as to what employees should do to cut waste, including printing double-sided and in black-and-white; turning off monitors, PCs, and lights; and unplugging chargers.
  4. 4. Put expectations in writing. Add green policies to corporate documents such as employee handbooks and job descriptions (eg, "Employees are encouraged to report inefficiencies and to suggest improvements"). Remind staff of these policies during orientation and training sessions.
  5. 5. Use visual and auditory reminders. Decals, stickers, and signs hung around the office can be effective reminder for employees to turn off lights, reduce printing, and so forth.
  6. 6. Make people feel good about their actions. This ties in to rewards, which again, need not be monetary. Public recognition and praise, for example, can be very effective.

What does your company do to encourage greener behaviour?