Many HR leaders aren’t aware of what ‘Net Zero’ means or the implications it has for their organisations, says Shalmalee Nath of The Climate School. There are a number of specific skills and competencies that have become increasingly important for employees, she notes in this exclusive conversation with People Matters.
Shalmalee Nath is the Head of APAC at AXA Climate’s The Climate School, where she partners with organisations and institutions to help them undertake sustainability transitions through action-oriented learning. She has over 12 years of experience in business development, growth strategy, partnership management, customer success, and learning design across various industries.
Q. In your opinion, what are the key challenges that HR leaders may face in responding to the push to Net Zero in Indian firms?
HR leaders in Indian organisations have a very critical and tough job cut out ahead of them to ensure their organisations have a sustainable future. And I fear they are falling behind because of a lack of awareness and understanding of Net Zero, lack of sponsorship and alignment and resistance to change in some quarters.
For example, many HR leaders are not even aware of what Net Zero means or the implications it has for their organisations. This can make it difficult to communicate the need for change to employees and to develop a clear roadmap to Net Zero. The transition to Net Zero can also be complicated, multipronged and expensive both in terms of monetary and time investment; that means HR leaders will need to find ways to partner with their executive committee and sustainability teams to understand their responsibilities in the medium-term and align internal initiatives. Finally, some employees may be resistant to change, especially if they are concerned about the impact it will have on their jobs or their way of life. Therefore, HR leaders will need to be able to address these concerns and to build support for the Net Zero journey.
Fortunately, by taking action now, Indian firms can position themselves as leaders in the global sustainability movement and can attract top talent who are looking for organisations that are committed to making a difference.
Therefore, my advice around Net Zero thinking the HR leadership of organisations would be to:
Invest time in understanding the charter of the executive team and the sustainability team and what are the various challenges they have to navigate in the organisation’s journey to Net Zero.
Start educating yourself and your team about Net Zero. There are many resources and partners available (like AXA Climate School) that can help you learn more about the issues and the implications for your organisation. And finally, engage with employees and get their input as this will help you to build support for the change through every part of the organisation and to identify any potential challenges that need to be addressed. Last but not least, communicate your roadmap and progress to employees and stakeholders, as this will help to keep everyone informed, invested, and actively engaged in the Net Zero journey.
Q. What strategies or initiatives can HR leaders implement to ensure a smooth transition to Net Zero while minimising disruption to employees and job roles?
Change is difficult, but it is absolutely essential if we are to see a future that is better than where we are headed today. It is the responsibility of the HR leadership to help the organisation navigate the choppy waters of change with the right resources and support.
Some key lookouts would be to ensure that they:
Keep employees informed about the Net Zero journey, the reasons for the change, and the implications for their jobs. This will help to build trust and understanding and to minimise any anxiety or uncertainty.
But also be proactive by offering training and development opportunities to help employees upskill and reskill. The transition to Net Zero will require new skills and capabilities for one and all, and HR leaders need to set the right foundation in helping employees understand and cultivate these new skills. A structured training and development program can help them to achieve this.
Based on previous exposure to client success around this area, setting up a Net Zero employee resource group (ERG). That’s because this ERG can provide a forum for employees to discuss the Net Zero journey and to share ideas and suggestions.
For the right kind of change to catch momentum and sustain, initiatives and successes need to be role-modelled throughout the organisation. This could be done through positive incentive policies, awards, public recognition, or other forms of appreciation. Finally, accept the need to be adaptable and flexible, as the Net Zero journey will be a complex and challenging one and be prepared to make changes as needed and to be open to new ideas.
To be sure, some employees may be affected by the transition to Net Zero, such as those who are in roles that are being made redundant or those who need to relocate. HR leaders should offer support to these employees, such as outplacement services or relocation assistance.
Q. What specific skills and competencies will become increasingly important for employees as organisations strive towards Net Zero?
As organisations strive towards Net Zero, there are a number of specific skills and competencies that will become increasingly important for employees. These include both technical skills as well as cognitive and leadership capabilities. On the technical side, for example, employees will need to have the technical skills necessary to design, implement, and operate low-carbon technologies. This could include skills in areas such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, circular design, carbon capture and storage, etc. Next up, in my view, will be project management and analysis. Teams will need to be able to manage complex projects related to sustainability. This could involve things like setting goals, developing plans, and coordinating resources. As the complexity of reporting and assurance continues to grow, they will need to be able to collect, analyse, and interpret data related to sustainability. This could involve things like using data to track emissions, identify trends, or measure the impact of sustainability initiatives.
Employees will need to be able to understand, identify and solve complex problems related to sustainability. This could involve things like finding ways to reduce emissions, manage a variety of different risks, rethink business models, etc. Change will be a constant (whether regulatory or technological), and employees will need the mindset and resources to be able to adapt their behaviours and approaches continually. They will need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively with stakeholders about sustainability issues. This could involve things like explaining complex concepts to non-technical audiences, building relationships with key stakeholders, or influencing decision-makers. Staff will also need to be able to lead and inspire others to take action on sustainability. This could involve things like setting a good example, motivating others, or creating a culture of sustainability within the organisation.
Q. Are there any particular HR policies or practices that need to be reviewed or revamped to support the Net Zero transition, and how can HR leaders ensure their successful implementation?
There are a number of HR policies or practices that need to be reviewed or revamped to support the Net Zero transition. These will be a powerful tool in the hands of HR to make their organisations compliant with Net Zero transition and cover your organisation’s business travel, commuting, physical office space utilisation, and benefits.
Firstly, HR leaders need to review their travel policies to ensure that they are aligned with the organisation's Net Zero goals. This could involve things like monitoring carbon budgets, reducing the number of business trips, encouraging the use of virtual conferencing public transportation, or offsetting carbon emissions from travel.
How do your people get to their desks? Here, HR leaders will likely need to review their commuting policies to encourage employees to choose sustainable transportation options. This could involve things like providing subsidies for public transportation passes, offering carpooling incentives, or creating bike-friendly workplaces.
Similarly, you’re going to need to review your office space policies to ensure that they are as energy-efficient as possible. This could involve things like using energy-efficient lighting and appliances, telecommuting options, or staggering work hours. And on benefits, I recommend HR leaders review policies now to ensure that they support employees who are making sustainable choices. This could involve things like providing discounts on green products, offering financial incentives for sustainable behaviour, or providing paid leave for employees to volunteer for environmental organisations.
Q. How can HR leaders collaborate with other functional areas, such as operations and finance, to ensure alignment and synergy in achieving Net Zero goals?
HR leaders can collaborate with other functional areas, such as operations and finance, to ensure alignment and synergy in achieving Net Zero goals in a number of ways. These include establishing a cross-functional team with a shared vision. To promote success, this team should include representatives from all of the key functional areas involved in achieving Net Zero, such as HR, operations, finance, procurement, marketing, and risk, alongside the core sustainability team. The team should be responsible for planning the implementation of the organisation's Net Zero strategy, as well as communicating with employees and stakeholders.
The cross-functional team should create a shared vision and action plan for Net Zero that is aligned with the organisation's overall goals. This vision should be communicated to all employees and stakeholder squads “so that everyone is working towards the same goal. HR leaders should work with other functional areas to align policies and practices with the organisation's Net Zero goals. This could involve things like reviewing travel policies, commuting policies, and office space policies to ensure that they are as sustainable as possible.
HR leaders should, as a priority in my view, provide training and development opportunities for employees on sustainability topics. This will help employees to understand the importance of Net Zero and to make sustainable choices in their work and personal lives. And finally, HR leaders should recognise and reward employees who make sustainable contributions. Why: it’s a great and proven way of employees to continue making sustainable choices and to help the organisation achieve its Net Zero goals.
Q. What are some successful examples or best practices of HR leaders responding to the push for Net Zero in Indian firms, and how can these experiences guide other organisations in their journey towards sustainability?
The HR team at global tech giant HCLTech has recently launched the HCLTech Sustainability School (from The Climate School), featuring a comprehensive climate literacy learning series. This initiative aims to raise awareness about climate change among the company's vast workforce of over 220,000 employees and foster positive behavioural changes. Santhosh Jayaram, the global head of sustainability at HCLTech, emphasises that empowering employees with practical tools through the school can turn them into powerful advocates for sustainability.
Committed to making a significant environmental impact, technology firm Tech Mahindra aims to reduce its Scope 1+2 emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2035, compared to the base year of 2016. The HR function plays a pivotal role in supporting this ambition by facilitating virtual meetings through platforms like Teams and establishing policies to reduce travel frequency or encourage low-emission modes of travel. Additionally, Tech Mahindra's HR team has developed a comprehensive framework for environmental initiatives to help the organisation reach its net-zero goals.
As a leading private sector bank in India, HDFC Bank takes sustainability seriously. The bank has conducted a thorough assessment of its carbon footprint across all its offices and now transparently lists all greenhouse gas emissions in its company reports. The HR team at HDFC Bank is focused on promoting environmentally conscious practices and supporting employees in adapting to sustainable working conditions. This includes initiatives like eliminating plastic water bottles from office premises, reducing paper cup consumption, and implementing proper waste segregation, encouraging employees to make climate-conscious decisions in all aspects of their activities.
These instances exemplify the best practices for HR teams striving towards Net Zero goals. The crucial elements of education and mobilisation, achieved by creating awareness about climate change and empowering behaviour change to adopt low-carbon solutions, play a pivotal role in the collective effort to achieve Net Zero.