This article is part of Blink’s “frontline first” series: content created specifically for leaders of deskless or distributed teams. We know that the job of frontline leadership is entirely different from managing ‘desk-based’ teams, so this is for you and your unique set of challenges.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) play a critical role in successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies. They can bring employees together, create a safe space for giving feedback to management, and can help identify and promote positive leadership.
For deskless – or frontline – organizations, ERGs can also be a critical means to build employee engagement where physical distance and a lack of connection present significant challenges. This engagement, in turn, helps drive retention and productivity.
But how do you get started in building effective and empowered interest-based groups when your teams are constantly on the move or rarely behind a desk? Let’s find out…
What are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?
Employee resource groups are voluntary, employee-led groups that bring employees together around a shared experience or identity. Their goal is to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace that values the unique perspectives of all employees. ERGs are formally recognized by the organization, often with an executive sponsor, and should be part of a larger DEI strategy.
ERGs first appeared in the 1960s as workplace affinity groups attempting to alleviate race tensions and combat workplace discrimination. The first Employee Resource Group was formed at Xerox, with the intention of developing a supportive environment and secure upward mobility for Xerox’s African American employees.
According to research by Bentley University, modern ERGs are present in 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Some are based on demographics like race or gender, but they can also center on career stages, social causes, and more. Whatever the central focus, modern ERGs recruit allies as well as individuals directly tied to the target demographic, career stage, or cause.
Benefits of Employee Resource Groups
Employee Resource Groups benefit both the employees who are part of them and the organization that supports them. They’re particularly critical for deskless organizations – here’s a few examples to show why:
- Connecting workers. By encouraging employees to connect around a common cause or interest, you help employees to feel less isolated. This is particularly critical for deskless organizations, where workers might go for long periods without interacting with colleagues, and might never otherwise meet co-workers outside of their immediate teams.
- Improving the physical work environment. Another critical benefit for frontline organizations is that ERGs create a platform to bring forward concerns about the work environment, helping leaders stay on top of issues such as accessibility at work sites and safety concerns. You benefit from having these issues identified quickly, and your employees benefit from seeing you take action to remedy their concerns.
- Developing a safe space. Showing a willingness to listen to ERG feedback and adopt reasonable suggestions builds a culture of trust in your organization. This will help employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns and demonstrate your organization’s dedication to DEI principles.
- Identifying future leaders. Employees who actively participate in ERGs may demonstrate leadership traits that indicate potential for taking on other leadership roles in the organization. This can be a critical means of delivering development opportunities that are mission-critical for frontline retention.
- Tackling company-wide challenges. ERGs can use their platform to advocate for changes that would benefit all employees at the organization. For instance, an ERG might suggest implementing or expanding a mentorship program to ensure that it is available to all employees.
- Unearthing frustrations. Employees who don’t feel empowered to discuss their concerns with leadership will still often be discussing those concerns with co-workers. By actively soliciting and responding to feedback from ERGs, organizations can prevent concerns from boiling into larger issues or causing good employees to seek other employment out of frustration.
- Expanding marketplace reach. ERG members can provide valuable market insight to improve your organization’s core services or products in ways that your organization might otherwise have missed. For instance, ERG members might suggest a process improvement that your operations team had not considered.
- Giving back to the local community. ERGs can connect with local charities and support groups to benefit the local community (such as in this example from Eric Wright FM, a facilities management company). This helps employees feel connected with causes meaningful to them, and also helps promote the organization as a local employer.
Employee Resource Groups in deskless environments
Making Employee Resource Groups accessible for frontline or deskless workers can be tough. It’s unfortunately common for frontline employees to be left off of email invites or not considered when scheduling ERG meetings and events, which can lead to the impression that only office-based employees are valued in an organization’s DEI strategy.
Communicating ERG events to frontline employees
Luckily, there are tools available today that make building and supporting your ERGs easier for deskless orgs. Frontline employee apps like Blink make including all interested employees in your ERG communications automatic, as employees can opt in or out to an ERG channel for updates, meaning you no longer need to block time to manually update an email list. Virtual meetings can be initiated from right in the chat so employees don’t need to be emailed separate joining instructions to be included.
Scheduling ERG events with frontline employees
When it comes to scheduling your ERG meetings and events, it can be a challenge to find time that works for everyone. Remember that your ERG should be accessible to everyone and include events that a reasonable number of employees can attend. Make sure to rotate event times throughout the year so that no one group is consistently left out.
It’s also a good idea to consider asynchronous events. For example, try hosting an “Ask Me Anything” event, where a company executive or industry expert agrees to answer employee questions. You then collect questions through chat channels and share them with your “Ask Me Anything” expert to answer. The answers are then shared back to your ERG members. These types of events ensure everyone who wishes to can participate at times that work with their schedule.
7 steps to setting up successful frontline Employee Resource Groups
Ready to start an employee resource group at your organization? Follow these steps:
- Identify the groups that could most benefit. Identify any groups of employees that are currently underrepresented in your organization, or for which you want to improve recruitment and retention rates.
- Survey employee interest. ERGs are employee-led, so you’ll need to ensure there’s employee interest in starting and running the group. Employee surveys can quickly engage your employees and identify interested individuals.
- Secure executive buy-in. A successful ERG needs a sponsor from your organization’s senior management team. This person will assist with implementation and help the ERG grow, as well as make sure that its findings and recommendations are properly considered and implemented.
- Recruit members. It’s fine for an ERG to start as a small group, but you should help spread the word so that interested employees can find it. Frontline apps are an extremely effective way to get ERG news out to all of your employees.
- Define the group’s mission. This step should come from the ERG’s members and management sponsor. While the mission can adapt with time, defining it at the start helps the group to stay focused on its goals.
- Provide the right tools and support. ERGs should be employee-led, but still supported by the organization. Support can include setting up a dedicated chat group to aid communication, providing a budget for events or ERG swag, or additional compensation for ERG leaders.
- Stay focused on inclusion. ERGs are sometimes criticized for being exclusive and not tied to the broader organization. ERGs should be encouraged to welcome all interested members who are willing to respect the group’s safe space. At the same time, employees should be reminded that ERGs are intended to be support groups, not debate forums. Similarly, it is important to remember that ERGs provide support first, and may not contribute to business improvements right away.
A deskless ERG success story: Salutem Care and Education
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Salutem Care and Education (a leading care provider in the UK) quickly recognized the need to remedy high levels of staff stress and low morale To do, it launched S.E.L.F (Salutem Employee Listening Forum), an initiative to promote a listening culture throughout the the organization’s 2000 workers.
Using Blink, managers nominated SELF Reps, who were then voted for by the company. This led to each Salutem division having allocated Reps who would moderate dedicated ERG channels on Blink’s app, where colleagues were encouraged to share thoughts and open up conversations around concerns or opportunities for growth.
SELF Reps also formed their own ERG, where they could connect with Reps from different regions to uncover any major concerns that need immediate action with the Group People Director.
This ERG program helped bring together a team of frontline workers during a difficult time to make their voices heard at the highest level of leadership. Read more about this success story here.
Making Employee Resource groups part of your DEI strategy
Employee resource groups can add fantastic value to your DEI strategy, particularly when you have deskless team members that are traditionally hard to connect with. With commitment from leadership, these groups can build employee trust and provide a constructive route for employee feedback. Your commitment to ERGs in the long-term is vital to their success, as changes won’t occur overnight.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that the presence of ERGs means that your work on DEI is complete. The most valuable ERGs are only part of a comprehensive DEI strategy, and if you provide them with leadership support and collaboration tools, you may find their support for your overall DEI efforts to be priceless.