Employee resource groups and the challenges of the virtual working world
By Jo Faragher on 8 September 2020
As with so many aspects of ‘typical’ working life, employee resource groups and networks have had to make swift and significant changes to how they work during the pandemic. Get-togethers and drop-in sessions have had to move online, campaign plans are being drawn up using tools like Slack and WhatsApp, and some groups may feel like it’s harder to get their voices heard.
That has not meant that ERGs have stayed silent during the pandemic – for many it has been a busier time than ever. Insurance giant Aviva, whose six global employee networks are known as ‘Aviva Communities’, has been able to learn from networks based in countries where the pandemic struck earliest, such as Italy and Singapore. “We took what we learned to offer support and advice to our colleagues on topics like flexible working, home schooling, mental health and looking after family and neighbours,” says a spokesperson. “Like every organisation, we had to pivot quickly. We had to cancel or rearrange a lot of our planned Communities events. Initially we saw this as disappointing, but realised quickly that running some of these virtually gave us the opportunity to share events and learnings globally.”
Activities have included a WebEx session with a speaker from Carers UK during Carers Week discussing the impact of Covid-19 on carers, virtual Pride events and even a virtual celebration of the Notting Hill Carnival hosted by the Origins Community, which celebrates cultural difference and focuses on race, ethnicity, religious belief and social mobility. Community members also held calls to discuss Black Lives Matter, “to listen to our colleagues and create safe spaces”, while senior leaders held sessions on BLM in partnership with the Origins community and the company’s D&I team.
There have been numerous examples of employee networks ‘pivoting’ their activities and even extending their reach beyond their usual audience. Employees in the women’s network at Whirlpool in the US launched a thankyou letter writing campaign to factory workers who have remained on the front-line throughout the pandemic, for example. At Uber, a partnership between its Black at Uber network and Pride at Uber networks set up a virtual panel discussion in the wake of the George Floyd protests to highlight the personal stories of employees who are both black and LGBT.
As with other aspects of work – organising these initiatives has flipped quickly to chat platforms, as Aviva’s experience shows: “Our ERGs have their own channels already, but we’ve found Yammer to be an invaluable collaborative tool to share ideas and have meaningful (and sometimes fun) conversations on,” the spokesperson adds. “There’s been a makeup masterclass from two members of our Pride community, a webinar around nonbinary employee experiences, discussions around allyship, and an interactive map for World Day for Cultural Diversity where colleagues could mark the country of their heritage.”
The impact of Covid-19 has of course not been the same for all under-represented groups at work. Groups supporting Black and ethnic minority employees have faced the dual pressures of advising colleagues’ on how they can add their voice to the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd in May and the chilling fact that BAME individuals are disproportionately more likely to die from coronavirus.
Rob Neil, head of culture change and leadership at the Department for Education, says there has been a real increase in appetite from organisations wanting to hear from their BAME staff, with some just starting their Black networks during lockdown. While these groups have been galvanised by having to respond to Black Lives Matter and their visibility has increased, they still need support from allies to raise awareness, he adds. “There are pluses to virtual working too – travel time down to a minimum, for example. Or you can have meetings with people who are internationally or nationally dispersed,” he says. Activities that might have taken place in the office – for example the DfE has a media club to share recommendations for books and films – can be recreated virtually but are still hurdles to the traditional ways of networking.
In some ways, the nature of lockdown broke down boundaries between employees’ home and work lives, so groups felt more comfortable sharing the needs of different individuals within them. “At Fujitsu, this has already helped to create a much more natural environment of conscious inclusion,” says Kelly Metcalf, head of diversity and inclusion and wellbeing at the technology company. “Our employee networks have played a prominent role in helping employees to stay connected during lockdown, through virtual social events, peer to peer support and targeted events to help different groups.” Its global Pride network led Fujitsu’s first global ‘virtual’ Pride celebration in June in response to the in-person Pride parades not going ahead for this year, while the Women’s Business Network has run events focused on supporting those with additional caring responsibilities in the home.
Another positive we can take from the way the pandemic has changed how we work is that it has demonstrated the value that networks can offer to their organisations, and why they require investment and support. Neil adds: “Invest in the software we need so we can continue to exist and thrive in this virtual space. We can help save you money as an internal source of consultancy. Even if we’re helping to reduce grievances, fewer people leave and employee engagement is up, you’ll end up on a journey that will save you money.” Metcalf at Fujitsu agrees: “Our networks are an incredible source of employee insight, shining a spotlight on the lived experiences and needs of different groups,” she says. “For example, during the pandemic, we have all been moved by tragic events in the US and our Cultural Diversity Network has led virtual roundtables connecting colleagues from across the business to share their experiences of race and be part of our planning to do more in driving racial equality.”
As organisations begin to embrace new ways of working in the longer-term – whether that’s a hybrid of office and remote working or something else – prioritising D&I and listening to people’s lived experiences will only become more important.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.