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Seven Ways Today’s Challenges Can Make Your Organization More Sustainable

By Brett Lyon & Llyswen Berna

The world has changed drastically in the last several months. Routine events like going to work in an office or boarding an airplane are now considered risky. Businesses that used to be profitable are having trouble keeping the lights on. While this disruptive business environment may be challenging for your company, it can also be the perfect opportunity to think about what you want your company to look like in the future. Focusing on the Triple Bottom Line of People, Planet, and Profit (1), are there ways you can make your operations sustainable and your business more resilient? Here are seven questions designed to spark your thinking by focusing on benefits to people, the planet, and of course - profits.

1) Can you make working from home effective for your business?

Prior to quarantine, working from home while maintaining productivity was widely regarded as unrealistic. This has since been proven to be false. Working from home gives employees more flexibility in their schedules and allows them to better manage their work/life balance. It also has the environmental benefit of less travel to and from the office. In addition, having a remote workforce allows you to pull talent from a larger candidate pool, as you are no longer limited by a particular location. You may also find financial benefits by decreasing the footprint of your office.

How can you incorporate remote work into your business plan? Can you offer flexibility to employees, giving them a day or two a week of remote work once offices reopen? How would switching to a virtual workforce, even part-time, affect your overhead costs? How can you encourage team bonding in a virtual environment? Consider the reasons virtual work was not an option before and see how you can address these challenges now that it is a reality. Engage your employees in these conversations to see how they are feeling about working remotely.

2) How are you protecting your employees from further economic impacts?

When dealing with a financial crisis, layoffs should be the last resort. Financial advisors recommend that the average household should have enough in savings to cover costs for six months in case of emergency. Yet many companies fail to follow the same advice and, at the first sign of economic distress, jump to layoffs as the most effective way to cut costs. It does not have to be this way.

Gravity Payments gained a lot of positive press a few years back by raising the minimum salary for all employees to $70,000. When COVID-19 hit, Gravity’s revenue plunged, and yet the company did not lay off staff (2). Instead, leaders spoke with their employees and came up with a solution that worked for everyone. The company implemented a pay-cut strategy that impacted higher paid employees more than those earning the minimum salary and ensured the company could continue to operate.

How can you plan for emergency situations? What other options can you exhaust before implementing layoffs? What debt do you need to pay down to be in a better financial position? How can you collaborate with and/or involve employees in what are typically considered sensitive conversations about your company? When you treat your employees as partners they may just surprise you with innovative ideas that can aid in revenue growth during an economic crisis.

3) What can your company do to address the disparities exposed during the COVID crisis?

In the United States, people with lower incomes have been more likely to become ill and be economically impacted by the Coronavirus. This is happening at a time of extreme income inequality. A number of economic thinkers, including Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, believe that for a long-term, stable, and sustainable economic recovery to occur, we need to address this inequality (3).

How might your company be able to decrease inequality? Could you encourage your employees to be more active in their community by creating a volunteer program or matching their non-profit donations? Can you consider increasing the salaries for your lower wage workers to improve your company’s wage ratio? If your hourly workers are not included in your company’s bonus plans, maybe it is time to reconsider. After all, it is likely that many of your essential, front line employees are also some of your lowest paid workers.

4) What investments can you make now to ensure a more secure future?

In spite of our hobbled economy, a number of businesses have seen their revenues increase during the Coronavirus crisis. One notable sector has been home improvement and hardware stores. People have been investing in their houses and yards, in part so their families can be more resilient given the uncertain future.

Are there similar sustainability focused investments you could make in your business right now? Is it time to buy new energy saving laptops for your employees so that they can work remotely? If your business owns property, perhaps you can avail of subsidies to put up solar panels or purchase energy efficient HVAC equipment or lighting? Is there something clever you could do with your waste? For example, several Portland area distilleries are making hand sanitizer with their discarded alcohol (4). This could be the perfect time for you to think up a new product offering or business model.

5) Can you create a local supply chain for your business?

Early in the pandemic, supply chains were disrupted as factories in China shut down. Many companies faced shortages and were unable to meet consumer demand, leaving grocery store shelves bare. Global supply chains can be logistical nightmares and leave lasting negative impacts on the environment due to travel and storage costs. It may cost you a little bit more financially, but local suppliers may help alleviate some of these logistical nightmares and environmental issues by tailoring to your specific needs. They can also give you more insight into your supply chain and its work practices. In addition, by supporting the local economy, you can incorporate “locally sourced” into your marketing and pricing strategies.

What aspects of your supply chain can you move to local companies? How much do you spend on logistics, transportation, and storage of materials from your suppliers? Can that money be repurposed if you move to a more local supply chain? Do your customers value supply chain transparency? How would implementing a local supply chain aid in providing that transparency to customers? Making small changes in your supply chain can have major changes to your environmental footprint and your brand perception.

6) As people around the world went into quarantine for the COVID crisis the environment thrived. As we come out of quarantine, what can you do for the planet?

In the first few months of quarantine, wildlife was spotted roaming urban streets. Mountains previously shrouded in smog could be seen towering above major cities around the world. In April 2020, the International Energy Agency predicted that global carbon emissions would be 8% lower in 2020 than they were in 2019 (5).

What can your business do for the planet that you might not have previously thought about? Can you audit your greenhouse gas emissions or conduct a life cycle assessment of your products through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) or the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)? What can you do to help create more greenspace in your community? If you are in Portland, you could adopt a bioswale through the City of Portland’s Green Street Steward program. If you own property, consider landscaping it with native plants. If not, consider working with local environmental organizations to plant trees in natural areas.

7) Is all the travel you did before COVID still necessary?

One huge environmental benefit to quarantine was the dramatic decrease in both business and personal travel, especially via plane. Air travel is one of the most carbon intensive forms of transportation per passenger (6). With new COVID restrictions being put in place, reducing the number of passengers per plane (for valid safety reasons), emissions per passenger is set to increase significantly. How can you reduce the number of flights taken by your employees?

Reducing your employees’ travel requirements has financial and personal benefits. Your firm will save money not paying for flights, hotels, and per diems, and your employees will have a better work/life balance. Together these choices can increase employee job satisfaction.

How can you reduce your need for corporate travel? What can you do to make your virtual meetings more engaging? Can you cluster your travel to make it more meaningful? Which meetings truly need to be held in person and which do not? If you have virtual calls instead of requiring employees to fly to in-person meetings, you could have a significant impact on your company's greenhouse gas emissions.

Closing thoughts

At this point, it is clear that the pandemic and resulting fallout will have long ranging impacts on business. As you think about the future of your company, using the lens of sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line will have numerous long range benefits.

1) What is the Triple Bottom Line?

2) Run Your Business so You’ll Never Need Layoffs

3) Economic Recovery Will Require “Lessening of the Wealth Gap”, Says Hedge Fund Titan

4) North Portland’s Shine Distillery is Giving Away House-Made, 80-Percent Alcohol Hand “Cleaner"

5) Global Energy and CO2 Emissions in 2020

6) Climate Change: Should you Fly, Drive, or Take the Train?

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