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Five Lessons From the Chicago Green Office Challenge

by Don Knapp

Three months after its initial launch, the Chicago Green Office Challenge looks like a strategic hit for the City of Chicago. The program, created by ICLEI USA and the City, and rolled out in February, now has upwards of 150 downtown building tenants enrolled, and more than 50 building managers.Green Office Challenge Logo

If you’ve never heard of the Challenge, the concept is simple: Tenants and building managers compete to gain recognition from the mayor and media by improving their operations’ energy efficiency and sustainability (and save money in the process). The winners won’t only be those with the highest scores, but will also be those who have improved the most. And the City wins big as well, because the Challenge, conducted year after year, will help Chicago reach its emission reduction goals (39 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from commercial buildings).

Below are a few progress-report lessons gleaned after my conversation with Amy Malick, ICLEI’s Midwest Regional Director and an architect of the Challenge:

1. Everybody wants to make a difference, they just don’t know how to get started.

Before the Challenge started, office tenants and building managers were already hungry to learn how to be green, says Malick:

The Green Office Challenge does for Chicago’s office workers what ICLEI does on a larger scale for entire local governments--it’s a technical assistance program. Just like local governments that join ICLEI, these tenants and building managers are genuinely ready to take steps to go green, they just don’t know what those steps are, so we have to show them.

The take-home for local governments is that countless office workers and building managers in your community are likely eager to go green, but they need your guidance; they need a step-by-step program.

2. Keeping score makes it fun.

It’s one thing to tell (or lecture) people about what they can do to improve their buildings’ energy efficiency, and quite another to rate their current performance with a scorecard, lay out a points system for how they can improve, and entice them with awards and recognition if they meet their goals. Thus far in the Challenge, friendly competition is getting office tenants excited and motivated: Property managers are holding building-wide contests, office workers are imploring their managers to get on board.

3. People want recognition.

City staffers polled Chicago companies before creating the Challenge, and the consistent feedback was that people crave publicity: If they excel at the Challenge, they want Mayor Richard Daley and the media to recognize their organization as green. The lesson here: For an office greening program to succeed with slashing emissions and energy use, it should also help companies brand themselves as environmental leaders.

4. Trainings should separate tenants from building managers.

The first Challenge workshop grouped building managers with tenants to train them on how to achieve their goals. But it turned out that there wasn’t enough overlap to group them together: Tenants commented that lot of the information for building managers—how to create building-wide green teams, how to use ENERGY STAR tools—didn’t apply to them, and vice versa. Greening an office and greening a building are distinct challenges, so subsequent trainings have been targeted to the appropriate audience. On the other hand, it is important for both “sides” to understand the whole picture, so participating property managers and office tenants are challenged to engage each other over the course of the year.

5. The Challenge is almost ready for prime time.

The Green Office Challenge team is preparing a webinar—watch for an announcement soon—to explain how the Challenge works and what ingredients make it successful. The plan is for Chicago’s groundbreaking initiative to be replicated by local governments across the country, and ICLEI intends to position its members to do just this.

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