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How can behavioural insights help save energy in the workplace?

  • Blog
  • 25th Oct 2022

With spiralling energy bills and growing corporate commitments to ambitious environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, many businesses are asking themselves how they can reduce their energy use. 

Sizeable financial savings can be achieved by reducing energy use. As noted in a seminal discussion of workplace irrationality by Hunt Allcott and Cass Sunstein, regulations in the US that demanded more efficient fuel use in company vehicles resulted in $475 billion in savings for the businesses it impacted. Plus, introducing business energy efficiency standards had a similar effect: $27 to $64 billion in net savings for businesses over 30 years.

However, reducing energy usage at the workplace is not always as simple as just turning down the thermostat (though it sometimes is…). The amount of energy used depends on a variety of actions and choices made by various team members. To cut energy bills and emissions, the employers must facilitate a shift in the way employees behave. 

Saving energy in the workplace: Where to focus?

Many employee behaviours contribute to workplace energy use, including how we light, heat and cool the rooms we occupy at work, as well as how we use office appliances. Moreover, employees also drive carbon emissions at broader ‘scopes’, for example by choosing how to travel to and for work and how they use and dispose of waste.

Figure 1. Sources of workplace emissions

Reducing workplace energy use is a tricky challenge for employers and behavioural scientists alike. On the one hand, workplace energy consumption is something of a tragedy of the commons: unlike when people use energy in their own homes, employees don’t directly bear the cost of the energy they use in their office; they share many workplace facilities with colleagues; and they may feel that their actions won’t make a big difference in this context.

On the other hand, employers have some unique levers to shift behaviours: staff are bound by organisational policies, look to their employers and colleagues for guidance on how to behave whilst at work, and can be held accountable for their workplace behaviour.  

4 tips to encourage staff to use less energy in the workplace

Each energy saving behaviour has its own set of barriers and enablers, but we have distilled some key insights from across the behavioural literature on organisational change to suggest principles of action. Drawing on our EAST framework, we suggest that to encourage employees to save energy at work, employers need to make it easy, attractive, social and timely.

The case studies below showcase the potential for using nudges to help workplaces save energy, and possible more broadly increase the uptake of a range of other green behaviours that relate to workplaces (eg more sustainable commuting, business travel, dietary choices, etc). 

Make it Easy

Make it Attractive

Figure 2. UK government departments’ energy savings thanks to the intervention as a whole

Make it Social

  • In the workplace context, a small study found that personalised feedback about the specific sources of energy waste at the employee level led to a 50% reduction in leaving computers on during lunch and a 75% reduction in leaving them on at the weekend.
  • Social feedback can be equally powerful, as we know from the classic case study where letting customers know how much energy they spend compared to their more efficient neighbours led to small but sustained usage reductions. The same logic can be applied in the workplace context, not least when combined with an element of internal competition (see above). 
  • Several studies (here, here and here) have shown that instant feedback via electronic dashboards and apps is effective at encouraging employees to use less energy. Going further, workplaces can provide a dedicated ‘energy advisor‘ (member of staff) who provides personalised help and support (as well as monitoring) for colleagues to reduce energy consumption (Gustafson et al. 2008; Owen et al. 2010).

Make it Timely

  • Timing matters. For instance, looking at encouraging modal shift among commuters, BIT found that participants who just moved into the area were 4 times more likely to sign up for a local bike sharing schemes. Prompts to save energy could be embedded into onboarding packages to help build positive habits for newcomers.
  • The current energy crisis can help us combat our present bias – the focus on here and now, sometimes at the expense of future costs and benefits – and consider the more effective long-term energy saving measures, such as investing in insulation, solar panels or boiler servicing. The payback periods for some of these investments have fallen, even as their relevance and salience is increasing.

If your organisation is interested in helping your staff to use less energy or take up other sustainable behaviours, please contact BIT to explore opportunities to collaborate.