How employee resource groups can support your COVID-19 return-to-work plans

Are you fully leveraging your employee resource groups (ERGs) to lead and support your teams during COVID-19?

ERGs, also called employee networks, affinity groups, business impact groups and more, have been bringing together employees who identify with similar groups or communities for decades. These could be women’s groups, black or latinx groups, LGTBQ+ groups, among others.

Affinity groups can be a source of social support for employees. They’re also an opportunity to network, discuss common issues and help each other overcome obstacles in their careers. Mentoring and sponsorship are often byproducts of such programs.

For companies, ERGs can be used to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. When used successfully, these groups can shape policy and programs. They can also drive better alignment between a company’s diversity strategy and its business one.

Despite these benefits, the effectiveness of ERGs continues to be debated. ERGs can become false symbols of a company’s commitment to diversity. That is, the existence of these groups gives leadership the impression their diversity problems are solved and no have no more to do. Further, ERGs are mostly made up of volunteers who lead these groups from the side of their desk. With little time and small budgets, and often little support from senior leadership, many of these groups aren’t able to offer the full potential of their value to its members or its organization.

The barriers for ERGs have become more pronounced as we live and work through COVID-19. Overburdened employees may be unable to organize events, others may find it difficult to connect their groups virtually. These examples and others can make delivering programming to employees more difficult than ever. Yet, right now, ERGs can help companies make effective decisions to support their employees now and as they return to work in the coming weeks and months.

Collect data based on employee segments

As lockdowns ease up around COVID-19 companies are developing plans to return their employees back to the office. As they consider the myriad of factors involved, one thing is certain: a one-size-fits-all plan won’t cut it.

Customization will be key. Decisions will be based on the nature and function of specific jobs and roles. In addition, leaders will want to consider employees’ personal situations. Parents, for example, may be hard pressed to return to the office if childcare options remain limited.

ERGs can help leaders capture a clearer picture of employee circumstances. For company-wide surveys, ERG organizers can help develop targeted questions for specific employee segments. ERG members can also be tapped – either through anonymous survey platforms or third-party-led focus groups – to test current return to work thinking and plans. This can unearth potential hurdles, while presenting new ideas and opportunities.

Effectively lead your teams during times of change

ERGs can offer leaders an opportunity to more deeply connect with their employees. Through self-selection, ERGs segment the employee base. This brings with it the many advantages found in customer segmentation. Leaders can tap into these groups to understand the trending issues and concerns facing its members. In turn, leaders can use these insights to fine-tune their messaging to more effectively resonate with their people.

What’s more, they can use the insights to make real-time decisions to improve or amend programming and policies. Here’s an example: at a parent networking event LDI recently led, employees expressed worry that taking advantage of the company’s new leave policy would limit their future career progress. Hearing this, we spotted an opportunity for follow-up messaging about the policy from senior leaders as well as an improved cascade plan for people managers.

Create communities of support for employees

At its root, ERGs are a forum to support groups of people with similar experiences. In times of evolving change, this mission is critical. To support the well-being of employees, companies need to provide space to openly and honestly talk about their challenges without fear of judgement and recourse. They also need access to insights and mentorship, as well as the opportunity to develop new skills to navigate their current circumstances and prepare for what comes next.

We’ve seen examples of ERG-led virtual social events. Some have organized virtual mentoring meet-ups. These groups can also offer virtual training or coaching sessions to help them manage what’s on their plates.

Employee resource groups have always had the potential to drive company objectives. Yet, today, when companies are looking ahead to months or possibly years of evolving change, ERGs can be a valuable partner as companies determine how best to move forward. If you’re interested in more effectively leveraging your ERGs, we can help.

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