How to drive water saving amongst office staff

CAPE TOWN: Appointing a water-saving ‘champion’ in an office block context could be one way that municipalities and companies in South Africa can respond quickly and cheaply to the water restrictions facing many parts of the country, following two years of severe drought.

This is the take-home message of a recent experiment in energy saving measures conducted in a government building in Cape Town, which behavioural economists believe can be rolled out across the country and in different office block contexts.

The experiment was done by economics researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT), who used simple email-based messages, competitions amongst staff, and ‘champions’ for the cause in order to ‘nudge’ people towards energy-sparing behaviour. The best results produced a 13.5 percent decrease in energy use over an extended period.

Taking a work environment focus is unusual for this sort of behavioural intervention, according to research lead and economist Prof Martine Visser from the UCT Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU), because most similar experiments have focused on domestic households which are smaller and easier to track.

Visser says that while the findings are still preliminary, they are ‘promising’, and produced ‘the largest reductions in energy use’ that they have seen from this kind of behavioural intervention. This is particularly significant as participants weren’t incentivised through the use of money.

Visser and a collaboration of academics from UCT worked with a US-based non-profit ‘behavioural design lab’, ideas42, which does behavioural science research and consulting. Together, they tried out a series of interventions amongst civil servants working for the Western Cape provincial government in a 24-storey office block in the centre of Cape Town, to see if a combination of approaches could work as behaviour ‘nudges’ to encourage energy conservation amongst the staff.

‘There is already a large body of research in our field which looks at how effective these sorts of behavioural nudges are in residential households,’ explains Visser. ‘But there isn’t much work targeting office-block contexts, because it’s much more difficult to coordinate and monitor something like energy use in an office environment.’

The study was run in two parts, a pilot which started in October 2015, and the main study from June to October 2016, with the preliminary results reported on here from the months of June to September this year.

The experiment used various combinations of energy saving tips, energy savings competitions between floors, and appointing individuals on each floor as energy champions, and tested these across different floors in the building. Researchers also assigned specific energy-related tasks to individuals, sent out targeted information to people, and sent reminders about energy reduction needs.

On the floors where they combined these approaches - energy tips, inter-floor competitions, and identifying a floor energy champion - the staff cut their energy use by 13.5 percent and this was sustained over several months. However, in the ‘treatment’ where there was no energy champion to encourage co-workers to buy into the campaign, the energy cuts were not noteworthy.


Office-block buy-in

Explaining why the work environment is a more challenging space to monitor or encourage behaviour change around the use of resources like water or electricity, Visser says that, unlike with residential consumers, people in office buildings typically don’t have financial incentives to cut their energy use. While residential households usually have about four people living there, office floors could have between 50 or 200 people.

The work began in 2012, and aimed to see how behavioural economics could be used to help draw up policies in what the provincial government had identified as key challenges, including in health, climate change, and crime within the province’s jurisdiction. With this in mind, the researchers saw the opportunity for a ‘low-cost, high-impact’ tweak to the existing behavioural change studies, but this time specifically targeting energy usage amongst office workers.

They designed the experiment’s interventions to address a number of behavioural ‘bottlenecks’.

‘In an office context, people often shift the responsibility around energy use away from themselves, assuming someone else will turn off appliances or lights. Or they might have a moral justification for not conserving energy, arguing that their public service is enough of a contribution to the environment,’ explains Visser.

Another reason for not using energy sparingly, might be because they don’t see how small behaviour changes can amount to much in the long run, or they might simply forget to turn off appliances. Without any reference points for how much energy their colleagues are using, some might not realise how energy efficient their behaviour could be.

The preliminary findings are encouraging, and are not expensive to implement.

‘By our calculations, putting in the infrastructure for this sort of campaign would pay for itself within two years,’ says Visser.

These approaches could also be rolled out across larger groups easily, and the team foresees its potential across government departments and the commercial sector across the country. 


For more information, contact EPRU communications on



This research was done as part of the Western Cape provincial government’s ‘To Wise to Waste’ campaign, which Aa-ishah Petersen and Dale van Lingeren from the Department of the Premier for the Western Cape were instrumental in facilitating.

The EPRU researcher Professor Martine Visser worked as part of a team of researchers from UCT’s Research Unit in Behavioural Economics and Neuroeconomics (RUBEN), which is directed by Professor Justine Burns, and ideas42, a behavioural think tank from United States.

EPRU doctoral student Rebecca Klege was instrumental in the research.




News | 25 November 2016