A less-enlightened business might have wondered if it had made the right HR director appointment. It was two weeks before former talent and resources director at Crossrail Valerie Todd officially started as HRD of Siemens UK and Ireland in October 2018, and she was attending a two-day ‘hackathon’ event hothousing new initiatives. There were lots of ideas being bounced around, with each executive saying which they’d like to sponsor.
And yet it wasn’t D&I nor digitalisation Todd put her hand up to lead on. Rather it was an area not traditionally associated with HR at all: the circular economy.
“I said: ‘that’s me! That’s mine! I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do on it yet… but I know there’s a role we can play’,” recounts Todd. “Sarah [Jones, environment manager] was there and talked so eloquently on it that I was immediately engaged.”
Jones has been with Siemens for more than 10 years developing the company’s approach to environmental sustainability, resource use and efficiency. And she knew as soon as Todd expressed interest that this – despite not a commonly-found partnership at most businesses – would be a match made in heaven.
“I can’t deliver a circular economy for the whole of Siemens,” she says. “It’s got to be a massive transition from how we do business now to how we do it in the future. So we need to enable our broader employee base to make decisions with the circular economy in mind.”
A business risk
But what precisely does Siemens (or anyone else for that matter) mean by circular economy? The idea first cropped up around 1966, when economist Kenneth Boulding started raising awareness of an ‘open economy’ with unlimited input resources and output, in contrast to a ‘closed economy’ in which resources are tied and remain as long as possible part of the economy.
Where historically resources have been used in a linear way of ‘take, make and dispose,’ a circular economy is a model governments, organisations and individuals are increasingly turning to in order to combat the dangerous rise in waste being produced as the global population increases, and to conserve precious finite resources.
Siemens’ own circular economy strategy was initiated in October 2018, spurred by the realisation that where historically it had focused on improving recycling rates, this only addressed the end of the production and use phases. This was a risk to Siemens’ business as well as the environment, the company realised, as efficiencies would bring cost savings and make the business more profitable and competitive.
Which all sounds very sensible and worthy. But translating this strategy into day-to-day reality was never going to be easy for a firm 15,000-strong in the UK.
Which was where Todd’s lightbulb moment came in. “I said ‘I want to sponsor the circular economy’ because I could see it was all about things like: how do you get that discretionary effort from people? How do you get that additional buy-in? How do you incentivise people without it being a reward issue?” she says.
“We often talk about HR being a support service, but in this context it genuinely is because it’s supporting that wider agenda with the underpinning infrastructure.”
Todd could also see that there were several clear HR ‘wins’ to be gained in return for Siemens being successful here. “I could see a number of things from an employee perspective that were really going to drive motivation, engagement, the way people feel about the organisation,” she says. “I also wanted to test out if HR could really play a role in something that typically isn’t HR’s role.”
What with Blue Planet, Our Planet, Greta Thunberg and the UK government this year announcing a ‘climate emergency’, the popular rhetoric is now such that organisations can ill afford not to be talking – and walking – a good game here when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, says Todd.
“On Glassdoor the comments are around the social purpose we offer and sustainability is part of that, and we’re all competing for talent,” she says. “It matters to people in their personal lives, therefore as an employer it has to matter to us. We want to be seen as a good employer, we want to attract the best talent, therefore it’s a no brainer.”
There are real engagement and wellbeing wins to be reaped with existing staff as well, Todd says. In relation to more and more people apparently experiencing ‘eco-anxiety’ Todd comments: “Part of what we’re trying to do here is build that wider sense of wellbeing as part of the circular economy, to reduce some of that anxiety. So [employees] know the company they’re working for is actively doing something and they can participate.
“Going back to that fundamental role of HR being about right people, right place, right time, this reduces absenteeism, increases retention, motivates people… So from an HR point of view it’s central to what we should be supporting the organisation to achieve.”
Most crucial perhaps has been launching L&D activity geared around the circular economy.
“We’ve done a managers’ bite-size session. We run those on all sorts of different topics. It’s once a month, a time for managers to get together in the business and hear about something and understand what they can do about it,” says Jones.
“We’re also embedding the circular economy into our project management programme, our leadership development programmes and so on. It’s just getting it in there so people don’t hear it for the first time from someone like me.”
Siemens has also started to produce webinars that colleagues watch either live or as recordings.
“We’ve built up an intranet with lots of different resources such as YouTube videos,” says Jones.
“People often say ‘I haven’t got time to sit down and watch an hour-long webinar’, but an eight-minute snapshot they can watch while they have a coffee. So it’s making it a bit more flexible.”
HR is also working to build the concept into job design “so it’s not an add-on or extra thing you have to do,” says Todd.
“Whether you’re on a production line or in finance, everyone has a role to play,” says Jones.
But it’s important to get the balance between this being part of all job roles and KPIs, and letting staff guide their own learning and activity, says Todd.
“We have an open-access online campus. So if there is an environmental issue you want to pick up on you can go onto that, type in ‘circular economy’, and it will direct you to the video you need. You don’t need permission from your manager.
“We’re seeing individuals coming together almost organically and self-organising teams to promote and produce ideas for improvements, so it’s not having to be pushed by the senior leadership team,” she continues. “You can do as much or as little as you need to do. For some people it’s simply swapping out their throwaway cup for a reusable one.”
But while it’s important to allow staff to lead the agenda, the senior team must give it clear “legitimacy,” says Todd – hence her appointment as executive lead on the topic: “To keep that rhythm going we make it a priority on our executive committee. So sustainability is one of the things we discuss every month.”
This gives people the permission to spend that bit of extra time or perhaps money finding a circular economy-friendly solution, says Jones.
“It might be a project manager on a construction site looking at different ways of managing waste. Itmight be slightly more expensive to do it the more environmentally-friendly way but they should feel free to go ahead and do that.”
Other activity to push this to the fore has included encouraging employees to use their volunteering allowance to work on circular economy initiatives, and different World Environment Day themes and comms campaigns (including around beating plastic pollution one year and reducing pollution another).
“We also have something that was developed before I started, which is an open marketplace where initiatives and ideas can be promoted through social media and people can volunteer their time,” says Todd.
Diversity and inclusion is another highly relevant HR area here, adds Jones. “I think the D&I piece is really important because if you put a group of white middle-aged males in a room to think about the circular economy you get a very different response to if it’s a more diverse group,” she says.
“I think that is really important because you need lots of different viewpoints to challenge the assumptions that we have as an organisation. To say: ‘is this really good enough, can we approach it differently?’”
It’s still early days in terms of Jones’ team partnering with HR – the aim is to measure the impact of all this activity around the five-year mark. But there are already numerous anecdotal success stories coming through.
“On a rail electrification project they had the challenge of getting all their equipment through an area of woodland,” says Jones. “Normally you would lay down hardcore and make a roadway. But actually they found a reusable rubber matting that was far more protective of the trees; it didn’t affect the roots systems, was very quick and easy to lay, then they were able to take it up and use it again on the next project.”
Another example sits within Siemens’ gas and power business. “They package a lot of their turbines in big wooden crates and buy a lot of the components in crates. They thought ‘we can’t reuse that wood because it’s got the supplier’s branding on’. So it was engaging with supply chain management and asking ‘can we have this delivered in unbranded packaging? That way we can reuse that wood to package our own products’,” reports Jones.
Such collaboration with suppliers and best-practice sharing between organisations is a key focus going forwards, the pair report.
“One of the things we know about sustainability is if you make a change once you can use it multiple times rather than everyone reinventing the wheel,” says Todd. “We work with lots of partners in our supply chain – if we’ve invented something we want to share that… Equally there are some areas where people are more advanced than us and we’ll learn from them.”
Todd adds that she’d really like to “build an alliance of HR leaders who are doing interesting things”.
“I’d like to really get a conversation going around what more HR should be doing,” she says. “It’s how do we create permeable boundaries between organisations on this issue?”
Siemens has only just begun its journey here, Todd adds. But it’s about celebrating successes and breaking it down into manageable actions for people: “We’re on a journey and there’s no end and every step is an improvement to what happens to our environment.
“So it’s just taking those steps every single day.”
If you’re interested in helping to create an alliance of HR leaders working on environmental issues and the circular economy, please email editor Jenny Roper on firstname.lastname@example.org
This piece appears in the October 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk