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How HR Can Help Build Company Climate Resilience

The figures are stark, sobering and scary.

The world has already heated 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures and the track of current emissions indicates that we could be on course for at least 1.5°C of global heating by 2040 and, at the very least, 2.4°C of heating by the end of the century if we continue as usual.

Everyone, including businesses, need to play their part. As people professionals, we’re all well aware of how essential the human resources department is to keeping a business functioning effectively.

Now and in the future, HR professionals will have to play a leading role in building company climate resilience and helping their organisations cope with the devastating effects of climate change.

Rising temperatures and rising business challenges

Whilst 2.4°C doesn’t seem like much of a rise on paper, in reality it’s a different story. Heating over 2.0°C would spell widespread crop failures, mass habitat loss and species extinction; see once-in-a-decade extreme weather events like floods, droughts, storms and wildfires almost double in frequency; and turn around 216 million vulnerable people from developing countries into refugees.

Even, if the world achieves its best-case scenario of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5°C this century (an objective that the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland aimed to keep alive), there are still likely to be significant climate effects that will have a cascading effect on the way that economy functions, and the way that we work.

Organisations will have to adapt to changing circumstances, governmental policies and consumer/market situations caused by climate change. In other words, businesses and organisations will need to be climate resilient to survive in this harsh, new world.

What is climate resilience?

Resilience means the capacity of something to withstand and recover from sustained stresses. Climate resilience refers to how well an organisation can prepare for, cope with and adapt to changes caused by global heating.

As we move forward into an uncertain world, HR professionals have an essential part to play in ensuring that the people policies of an organisation are aligned with sustainability goals, and that the right processes and measures are in place to help mitigate the challenging effects of a changing climate.


How HR can build climate resilience

An HR department has a unique advantage that makes it well-placed for developing climate resilience: it’s the department that links all of the other departments in a business together. This privileged position means that HR can influence and build company policies, connect with key decision-makers across a company and get buy-in from employees and senior management.

So, how can HR go about building climate resilience? Here are some practical steps you can take:

1.    Bring departments together to facilitate climate resilience dialogue and create a strategy

As we mentioned above, Human Resources departments hold a unique position in an organisation. Traditionally called upon as mediators and communicators, HR acts as the link between different departments and excels at encouraging communication between groups. This can come in handy when you’re trying to build a climate resilience strategy from scratch.

Thanks to their people-focused skills, HR can take the lead in facilitating dialogue and collaboration between different groups and supporting the development of a flexible strategy to help the company adapt to a changing climate.

If you’re trying to support the development of a climate resilience strategy from scratch, consider doing a quick SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of your company’s current resilience efforts to inform your approach. The CIPD recommends looking at the policies, values, and accreditation that your organisation already has and examining how these could be improved.

2.    Encourage remote work in times of extreme weather...

One of the success stories of the pandemic has been the successful transition to remote work by many organisations.

COVID-19 has given most office-based employees — and previously skeptical organisations — a taste of working from home, with the number of remote workers more than doubling over the course of the pandemic in the UK. Lockdowns have proven that most employees can be trusted to work from home and deliver the quality of work expected, without productivity suffering. According to a recent survey, 56% of workers believe that they are just as productive in a home-working environment as they are in a office setting.

Whilst vaccinations mean that the worst of the pandemic is (probably) behind us and organisations are starting to return to the office, keeping some forms of remote/hybrid work in place makes sense when it comes to building climate resilience at your company.

If you need a solid example of why remote work is essential to climate resilience, look at the impact of freak weather events like the infamous Beast from the East polar vortex that hit the UK between 24 Feb 2018 and 4 Mar 2018, causing £1.2 billion in damage. Widespread heavy snow and ice paralysed travel systems and decimated productivity, and workers were unable to make it into offices because of the extreme weather. It’s fair to suggest that if remote working systems had been in place when this storm hit, it’s unlikely that so many businesses would have suffered huge productivity losses.

As climate change continues, we can expect extreme weather events like this to hit the country more frequently. If we want our organisations to be able to cope with the effects, we need to build working systems that can adapt to them. Hybrid and remote work is one such system.

Three People In Office

3.    ..and encourage remote work in times of non-extreme weather too!

The pandemic has directly challenged many long-held conventions about work. One of the biggest behemoths it has confronted is the necessity of commuting into a physical workplace. The pandemic has highlighted just how much time, energy and effort we expend commuting from home to workplace — and how pointless it is in many cases.

When we examine commuting from a climate resilience perspective, it becomes clear that there are serious emissions questions to consider. Namely, is forcing your employees to commute into work really worth the carbon emissions, if the work can be done just as well at home?

According to the UK Government’s ‘Transport and Environment Statistics: 2021 Annual Report’, in 2019, domestic transport use, of which commuting is a key part, emitted 122 MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) — 27% of the UK’s entire emissions for 2019. Domestic transport has the dubious honour of being the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gas in the UK.

If you require your employees to commute into an office every day, you’re also forcing them to add to their carbon footprint. Whilst some employees might be able to walk or cycle, most will have to rely on emissions-producing transport, like buses, trains and cars.  If employees are commuting in by car, this footprint can soon add up: for example, the average UK petrol car emits 180g of CO2 for every kilometre travelled and a diesel car emits 173g of CO2/km.

A solution to the emissions-problems created by commuting is simple, and we already have the technology at our fingertips — encourage your employees to work from home where they can.

4.    Provide climate resilience learning and development

Improving climate resilience in an organisation will not be an easy task and some of the features that will have to be introduced are likely to provoke debate and controversy in the workplace — especially where they ask people to change long-held processes or ways of working. That’s why developing your learning and development programmes will be key to the overall success of your company’s climate resilience aims.

Training employees in climate issues and developing their knowledge will allow you to improve participation in the resilience measures you implement. If you can convince employees and leadership of the value of climate resilience measures, and allow your biggest critics to become your biggest defenders, you’ll find that implementing them will be a whole lot easier. Training and learning is the best tool we have to do just that.

Any type of training around climate resilience should cover:

  • The climate resilience policies you have in place
  • What they’re designed to do
  • Employee responsibilities
  • Employer responsibilities

6. Embed sustainability and climate resilience into job descriptions and roles

As we mentioned above, compared to other departments, human resources is in a unique position to influence the climate resilience strategy of the entire organisation. With recruitment and job description creation a key responsibility of an HR department, people professionals have the opportunity to embed climate resilience and sustainability into any new role that the organisation creates and recruits for.

If your organisation already has a climate resilience strategy, consider embedding sustainability practices into the heart of the role that you’re designing, for example by adding specific measures to reduce emissions, waste and improve energy efficiency. This can help to make climate resilience a key part of everyone’s role at a company.

There’s no denying that climate change will test the resolve and stability of most organisations in the years going forward. Taking steps like the ones we’ve outlined in this article to improve how well your workplace can cope with these challenges is vital to future success.

Good luck in your mission!

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