Why ERGs matter even more in a remote world

Why ERGs matter even more in a remote world
Image: Photo: Shutterstock/Girts Ragelis
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What does it mean to celebrate Pride month remotely?

At ActiveCampaign, a Chicago-based customer experience automation firm, the answer was to throw a month-long online festival of sorts. In June, ActivePride, an employee resource group (ERG) for the company’s LGBTQ staff, produced a weekly series of events, including one featuring Jeffrey Marsh, a noted advocate for the nonbinary and gender fluid community. They gave a talk on living authentically says Jenny Coupe, executive sponsor of ActivePride and vice president of revenue marketing at ActiveCampaign, which ranked 14th on Quartz’s 2021 list of the best large remote companies to work for.

For another gathering, Coleslaw, a Boston-based drag queen, graced a Zoom gathering to read A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a children’s story about inclusion and same-sex marriage, supposedly narrated by Mike Pence’s pet rabbit. The entire company was invited to listen in, but ActivePride made a point of hosting Dads of AC and Moms of AC (two other ERGs at the company) and their kids. Then, at the end of the month, an ActiveCampaign client ran a webinar about what it means to be a small business owner who is part of the LGBTQ community.

Pride is normally “a very in-person event,” says Coupe. She doesn’t think all of its glory can be fully replicated on screens. “But I thought we did a good job of bringing in different voices and faces online to talk about things that all led back to diversity, inclusion, and equity at the company.”

A screenshot from a Pride Month Zoom event featuring the drag queen Coleslaw.
Coleslaw read “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.”
Image: Courtesy ActiveCampaign

ActivePride’s determination to make the month thoughtful, social, and entertaining, yet still tied to the company’s day-to-day business, exemplifies the role ERGs now play in corporate culture, and why they will be influential going forward, particularly in remote settings. Besides ActiveCampaign, at least seven other companies—HashiCorp, Automattic, Coinbase, Modern Health, PandaDoc, Puppet, and Wizeline—highlighted their ERGs when describing their company culture and diversity strategies in their applications to our ranking of the Best Companies for Remote Workers.

Employee resource groups keep people connected

Because they plug into issues employees care about, like diversity, equity, and social justice, today’s highly active employee groups often serve companies by holding leadership accountable—for recruiting or promotion targets, for example—while signaling to prospective hires that leadership takes inclusion seriously.

Whether remote or in person, ERGS are also ready-made spaces for mingling and networking. They create a forum where people from different departments and geographies can strike up unexpected alliances. In that sense, they also address two deep concerns of employers as they look toward a remote-work future: that connectedness and morale will fall off a cliff as people continue to work cloistered in their home offices, and that innovation will suffer without workers from various departments randomly and organically striking up conversations.

During the pandemic, ERGs became metaphorical rooms where people could replenish their relationships with colleagues, whether by bonding over an identity connected to race, gender, or orientation, or a shared interest, like mental health or climate change activism. They were a place where Black employees found refuge in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Resource groups also became critical channels for communication where companies could share information about the pandemic, like where to find vaccines or how to manage distractions when you’re working remotely, says John Dooney, an advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Denise Bindelglass, vice-president of people at ActiveCampaign, says she sees “a huge ability for ERGs to make a really positive impact on a distributed or remote culture, because it’s just one more great way to come together as a community, or a sub-community, of the organization.”

“I think it helps us quite a bit,” she adds, “when we think about how to be a really effective remote distributed workforce” with employees spread out across four continents.

The evolution of employee resource groups

People who have worked at large companies will be familiar with ERGs, which have existed since the 1970s. (They have been less common at smaller firms, although that is changing as more companies decide that headcount shouldn’t dictate your ERG strategy, says Bindelglass.)

Black employees at Xerox were the first to form an employee resource group in the US. Other companies followed with Black alliances of their own, a response to racial unrest in the country at the time, writes equity consultant and coach Aiko Bethea in Harvard Business Review. Eventually, other racial groups, and other identity groups, such as women or veterans or members of a particular faith, built affinity networks, too.

Networking at after-work cocktails or luncheons was once the primary function of these clubs. But as they’ve matured, ERGs have become more integral to companies’ diversity and inclusion strategies, says Dooney. Now members are contributing ideas about how companies can not only better manage their diverse employee base but also reach new customers by tweaking their services or adding new products; and they are driving political conversations that otherwise might not happen.

Lately, newer employee groups have emerged that reveal an expanded thinking about what diversity means, which helps to keep a company relevant and forward-thinking,  too. For example, some companies have launched ERGs for the neurodiverse, or for boomerang employees returning to the company or the workforce in general after an extended break.

Today’s employee resource group members expect to see results

Behind often fun monikers—Twitter’s Black employees go by “Blackbirds,” for example, while people of color at Slack call themselves the “EarthTones”—ERGs are increasingly professional and intentional about their goals, whether they want to boost representation at a company or build awareness of how its operations impact the wider world. For motivated employees, they have become another forum for activism, a place to introduce causes—or cultures—close to their hearts or in their lives outside the workplace.

Cover of the Juneteenth Cookout Cookbook by ActivelyBlack
Members of the ActivelyBlack ERG collected recipes for a digital cookbook.

In the past few years, some firms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, have begun paying ERG leaders for their time, while also beefing up budgets for ERGs. (This is true of ActiveCampaign, where ERG leaders earn $1,500 per quarter.) SHRM’s Dooney says this isn’t exactly a runaway trend, but the shift does show how companies are recognizing that the associations aren’t just about getting together for “chit-chat,” he says. Rather, “there’s a real outcome—the organization hopes that ERGs, overall, will contribute to the company.”

Management teams that are most serious about ERGs assign a business sponsor to the groups, someone who can relay intel that bubbles up from the groups to the company leadership team—where, unfortunately, many members of ERGs for Black or Latinx communities, for example, are still underrepresented. This is another reason that ERGs will matter in a remote environment: C-suite executives need to establish as many points of contact as possible to stay in touch with a diverse employee base. They also might look for new company leaders among the heads of ERGs who demonstrate their skills as informal managers of remote and diverse teams.

Leadership also benefits when ERGs take up an important message, such as the need for self-care and stress management during the pandemic, says Dooney. “It was useful that employees heard these things from their peers—it wasn’t just their supervisors talking to them.”

Employee resource groups go remote

When they were forced to move online, groups like ActivePride discovered some of the ways that being remote enhanced the ERG experience. For example, scheduling an in-person event for parents and children to join would have meant asking families to shoehorn a trip to the office into their complicated schedules, but when everyone’s remote you can invite peers and families across time zones to join for storytime.

ActivePride’s co-leaders also were able to reach out to their local networks in three cities to find partners and guest speakers, expanding the ERG’s reach and scope in a way that wouldn’t have happened if everyone lived in the same place. Coupe, for example, reached out to About Face, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps teens navigating adolescence, inviting them to one of the group’s weekly sessions. “A huge focus of this nonprofit is about helping LGBTQIA teens because it’s very hard to navigate adolescence, particularly if you’re coming out,” she says. Leveraging that relationship allowed attendees to learn and “understand what it means to be an ally, and then, of course, it brought awareness to the organization, which is just a win-win.“

Gen Z workers expect companies to have active employee resource groups

From the perspective of Gen Z workers, who are 26 and younger, employee resource groups have always existed. Indeed, they are seen as critical, whether young employees are joining a startup or a multinational, according to Casey Welch, CEO of Tallo, a South Carolina-based recruiting and talent development site that largely caters to students from minority communities. Tallo’s recent surveys have found that 86% of Gen Z workers expect employers to have ERGs.

Young employees have come of age in a time of heightened awareness around diversity issues and social justice, says Welch, so they’re naturally asking detailed questions about ERGs in recruitment meetings. What groups could a potential new employee join? How much influence do the ERGs have? How do they measure their success? Looking ahead, companies with a top-notch ERG game will have a competitive advantage, according to Welch, who says “It’s not [just] a nice-to-have for these employers.”

Tallo has also surveyed Gen Z members about their personal experiences of discrimination in the workplace. In 2019, about 40% of respondents said they had experienced bias, and that number rose to 48% in 2021.

When you think about why ERGs are so important to Gen Z, a population known for seeking jobs that have purpose and impact, says Welch, “not only do they know discrimination and experience it, but they want to be part of the solution.”

That aspiration is unlikely to change, whether a company is all-remote, in-person, or some combination of both.

How to do ERGs right

🙌  Get buy-in from senior leadership. This is always important, but more so in a remote environment, says Tallo CEO Casey Welch. The “business champion,” Welch says, makes sure that the ERGs are “staying on track, meeting goals, being impactful, and that employees have the time that they need to actually be able to be part of it.” ERG meetings should be prioritized to be part of the work day, he adds.

📣 Raise awareness about existing ERGs internally and externally. Companies need to publicize that they have employee groups and will support them, says Welch. He has found that workers often don’t know whether their company has ERGs or which ones are active.

🧩  See ERGs as just one resource for underrepresented groups. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, equity consultant Aiko Bethea cautioned against relying solely on employee resource groups to provide mental health support to Black employees. Companies needed to provide racial trauma support through EAPs, she wrote in Harvard Business Review, where she also suggested that employers fund memberships in external organizations, such as the National Association of Black Accountants and similar groups in other sectors, and pay for Black employees to attend conferences designed to support Black professionals.

💡 Recruit members who know what healthy ERGs look like. Jenny Coupe at ActiveCampaign says engagement was low when she first joined ActivePride, and it was unclear how the ERG was aligned with the company’s business mission. Coupe tapped two newer employees who came from organizations known for their strong ERGs, including one person who had worked at Uber. “We were pretty confident that Uber probably had some things figured out that we maybe hadn’t figured out,” says Coupe.