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Part 2: How to create a virtual ERG

Sharing the blueprint for bringing people together while apart

May 22, 2020 | By:Jemia Williams

colorful photo of a young woman using her mobile phone with technological graphics overlayed

We’ve already developed the business case for creating virtual employee resource groups (ERGs) —whether that’s providing ways for employees to connect across business, city and state lines, creating more diverse representation across your organization, fostering a more inclusive culture, or all of the above. As companies introduce new ways of work, they’re going to have to consider how to connect their employees together. Enter: virtual ERGs.

But what does a virtual ERG actually look like, and what is needed to get started? Learn how to create an ERG to better connect your employees and build a resonating culture.

Set the foundation and create a mission statement

Any ERG, virtual or not, starts with a need. If you’re developing your first ERG, assess your company and figure out which groups of people are represented and underrepresented. Are there groups that your organization is having trouble recruiting or retaining? Although the purpose of ERGs is to benefit employee participants and not directly produce “ROI” for the business, aligning your ERGs to your organization’s strategic goals will naturally maximize success. If you already have ERGs but are looking to divide them into smaller, virtual intersections, the easiest way to begin is by surveying ERG members to gain member buy-in and see who has shown interest, and in which demographics. Don’t worry about numbers—it’s OK to start small and grow each virtual ERG with time.

Once you’ve decided what intersection or group your virtual ERG will revolve around, create a mission statement that establishes what your organization wants to accomplish within the group and why it exists. Your mission statement should include the virtual ERG’s goals and objectives, as well as benefits of joining and expectations.

For example, the mission statement for TEKsystems’ virtual employee network group for black women in delivery and sales is:

To provide networking, access, development and a sense of community for black women in recruiting and sales at TEKsystems. This group will promote the achievements of personal and professional goals while providing a space to highlight and empower one another to address the unique challenges black women face. With our online community, we want to play a key role in promoting career and leadership development among our members. Additionally, we want to continue to attract and retain the best and brightest at TEKsystems.

Promote your virtual ERGs internally

Employees can only join your virtual ERGs if they’re made aware that they exist. It’s important to publicize the different networks that are available to your organization, and that can simply be through notifications in internal newsletters or on the homepage of your company intranet site, as well as communicating through your inclusion and diversity channels or programs. Since these ERGs take place digitally, it’s important to raise as much awareness as possible to promote further engagement of the community.

An effective way to connect new employees to your virtual network is by advertising virtual ERGs as part of their onboarding. For example, it is part of TEKsystems’ onboarding operating rhythm to reach out to them within their first 30 days with information on our ERGs, including their mission statements and a link to request to join, without any obligation to participate. Some virtual ERGs may be private and require approval to join in order to create a safe space for members to share freely, with complete vulnerability.

Design a framework for virtual events and activities

To activate your members, you’ll need to choose which technology platforms you’ll use to host your virtual ERG and facilitate conversation. In a virtual ERG, tools that help increase visibility, communication, dialogue and group discussions are beneficial. From experience, we recommend having a chat function to go back to, as well as video capability for high engagement. Some examples of technology platforms to use are:

  • Blue jeans
  • ezTalks
  • Facebook
  • Flock
  • Google Meet
  • GoToMeeting
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Trello
  • WebEx
  • Zoom

Once you’ve established the technology platform(s) and have your members integrated, it’s important to develop a schedule of events and activities to ground your virtual ERG and keep it moving forward. Creating a pipeline of engaging and interesting events will help your virtual ERG connect employees with shared experiences, stimulate participation and cultivate growth. Activities can be as simple as posing a question or icebreaker and asking members to respond and interact with each other over a virtual happy hour, and as complex as inviting a guest speaker to present on a topic of interest. Polling members before and after events will help you decide what’s working and what’s not. Some examples of virtual events include:

  • Community service
  • External guest speakers
  • Fireside chats
  • Leadership conversations
  • Professional development networking
  • Recruiting events
  • Storytelling activities
  • Vision board and goal discussions

Soon, members within the virtual ERG will begin to engage organically, initiating conversations and posts outside of set events or activities. The channel should become a space where employees ask deep, vulnerable questions, but it should also be where they can post funny pictures or memes when the workday has got them down; make recommendations for podcasts, articles and books; and celebrate personal or professional achievements such as buying a new car or getting a promotion.

Set your virtual ERGs up for success with executive sponsorship

While it’s not mandatory, we strongly encourage having senior leaders participate in your virtual ERGs and having them serve as executive sponsors to ensure the group stays true to their mission. Having leadership buy-in will help propel your virtual ERG by advocating for its members and acting as a point of escalation when and if needs arise. An executive sponsor with a seat at the table has the leverage to create change or challenge company culture.

Virtual ERG sponsors should thoughtfully commit to the growth and development of their virtual ERGs for at least one year and encourage members to volunteer and become active. Committee chairs are also not required but are welcome if you find a need.

Aside from involving leadership, it’s also beneficial to incorporate allies within the virtual ERG—people that do not necessarily identify with the group’s characteristics but are passionate about its causes and want to learn more or show support. The same goes for leaders who do not identify with the group but want to become advocates.

How to measure success and ROI through the development of employees

In respect to virtual ERGs, ROI can be seen and measured through a few ways. Tangible, quantitative data is a valuable way to track retention and promotion rates to understand how virtual ERGs are impacting your employees.

But from a people perspective, it’s important to understand how to recognize ROI, even if it’s intangible—like through higher engagement. As you create more access for employees, you’ll be able to observe them evolve from passive to active participants. Members who have been inspired by others in their virtual ERG may take on additional stretch assignments, handle more responsibility and seek more promotion opportunities. Because you’ve connected employees across different lines of business, they may have more exposure to different roles that shift their perspective on their own growth opportunities within the company. When an employee sees a colleague that they identify with on a cultural level who is achieving success or creating new opportunities for themselves, the impact is powerful. When members who are not virtual ERG “leaders” begin sharing and communicating more, that is an indicator that your virtual ERG is creating a real response.

Employees who are more engaged in the workforce increase productivity and feel more connected and supported by their organization. The ROI of virtual ERGs is really the development of your people, and retaining the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives you need to propel your business forward.

Sustain your virtual ERG through consistency, organization and engagement

The truth is, no matter how active your virtual ERG may become, they’re not self-sustaining. You would think that with all the ways the ERG can be connected virtually, it would be “easy,” but they still need to be guided and structured to sustain momentum. In fact, there are common pitfalls of ERGs that can cause issues if not avoided.

Figuring out the frequency of your events, whether different ones are quarterly, bimonthly or every six weeks, is a good place to develop a consistent framework. From there, ensure the group is experiencing a variety of events to keep people engaged and interested—it’s not effective to schedule leader webinars three times in a row. Get an executive sponsor involved and solicit feedback frequently from your members.

Identify passionate employees and ask them to lead different topics of interest within the group. Have an employee that’s the life of the party? Say hello to the role of celebration chair.

The end result? Your virtual ERGs will bring together groups of employees that are cutting edge and unique, spurring inspiration, confidence, bravery, authenticity. And ultimately, a truly inclusive culture that lends to higher retention, innovation and organizational results.

Jemia Williams has been a part of the TEKsystems team since 2013. She has held various roles, but her current role on the inclusion and diversity team is by far her favorite. Jemia focuses on building the TEKsystems brand across our local and national partners and continues to lead the strategy around attraction and retention of diverse talent.

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