By Alf Mendez, Vice President of Experience and Inclusion, Robert Half

Many employees look for fellowship and community in the workplace as well as in their private lives. This urge to connect not only explains the gravitational pull of the watercooler (or its Slack channel equivalents) but also a trend toward more structured forms of workplace community known as employee network groups (ENGs).

These networks, also called employee or business resource groups (ERGs/BRGs) or affinity groups, focus on historically underrepresented communities and bring together colleagues with shared interests for meetings and events. ENGs can be safe spaces where employees can find support, advocacy and allyship.

While large companies like Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce have heightened support and resources to bolster their ENGs, more midsize and small businesses are creating intentional pockets of community among people.

Why ENGs are good for business

Let’s review some ways ENGs can build connections among employees and help drive long-term change, no matter the size of the company. Included are examples of how these groups are furthering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts at Robert Half:

  • ENGs support each element of your DEI program. Diversity? Companies looking to promote women into leadership positions might benefit from an ENG like Robert Half’s GWEN, which champions and amplifies women’s perspectives. Equity? There’s strength in numbers, enabling ENGs to act as powerful advocates for leadership development and equal opportunities. Inclusion? It’s much easier to be your true self at work if you can draw strength and inspiration from colleagues with shared identities or life experiences.
  • ENGs can educate your entire workforce. ENGs are safe spaces, but they’re not silos. Groups often organize meetings and events for all employees, helping to break down social and cultural barriers. By recognizing heritage months, like Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May or Pride Month in June, ENGs can lead the way with increasing representation and celebrating the accomplishments, contributions and histories of historically underrepresented communities.
  • ENGs bring global workforces together. Employees from traditionally underserved groups may have different experiences depending on the country and culture they work in. Especially at larger companies, digital technology can make it easier to bring people together as part of a global ENG, reducing the potential for employee isolation and providing a forum for dispersed workers to discuss any challenges they face.
  • ENGs help to identify future leaders. An ENG leader planning events such as a Black History Month speaker series has plenty on their plate! They must set out a vision and strategy, build the program, manage the budget and coordinate with parties ranging from caterers to guest speakers. These are complex, skill-building responsibilities that can boost the employee’s visibility across the organization, showcase how they are candidates for promotion and make them more effective in their regular duties.
  • ENGs raise morale and foster team spirit. Events like Pride Month tend to grab the headlines, but ENGs can also bring people together to serve in shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness, host blood drives or coordinate trash pick-ups. Such initiatives allow workers to hone their collaboration and problem-solving skills in cross-organizational teams and can boost your company’s reputation in the community.

See this post to learn about the benefits of creating DEI programs in the workplace.

A five-step plan for creating employee network groups

According to a Robert Half survey, ENGs exist in around 46% of large companies and 33% of small businesses. The discrepancy based on company size is not a huge surprise, as ENGs are typically volunteer-led and might lack a sustained budget or administrative support.

However, with small businesses making up over 99.9% of businesses in the United States, the collective effort of organizations starting ENGs at the start could greatly enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across businesses, regions and industries.

Here are five steps any company can follow to create an ENG program.

1. Survey your workforce to gauge interest

ENGs are employee-led, so engaging your workforce in the process from day zero is key. Surveys, team meetings, or town hall-style meetings allow workers to suggest ideas for ENGs and should also give you an idea of how many people would be interested in joining each potential group. Make clear that ENG involvement is entirely voluntary. Employees who feel pressured into joining an ENG are unlikely to be energized about its mission.

2. Identify your ENG champions

As well as pin-pointing potential ENG members, your surveys and meetings should help you identify ENG champions — employees who are genuinely passionate about the project and want to shape its development. Encourage these evangelists to spread the word since their enthusiasm for the program is more likely to inspire fellow employees than promotional efforts from human resources or senior management. You can also ask them to join the launch team, but don’t pressure anyone into committing more time than their workload allows.

3. Secure executive sponsors

To maximize executive buy-in, try to garner leadership support by finding an executive sponsor for each ENG, as an example. These high-level champions give the group increased credibility and visibility across the organization and can function as advocates to ensure the ENG gets the resources it needs. Although sponsors tend to be members of the community represented by the ENG, they can also be allies, for whom the main criteria are a genuine belief in the group’s mission and a willingness to commit some time to drive that mission forward.

4. Formalize ENG mission statements

The membership of your ENGs will change as people come and go in your organization. By adopting formal mission statements or group charters, each ENG ensures that progress toward its short, medium and long-term goals survives any changes in group leadership and personnel. Encourage ENG leaders to delegate tasks and act as mentors to younger, less experienced group members. This will help ease transition pains if those leaders leave the company.

5. Spread the good news!

Because the goal of every ENG is to foster inclusion, going the extra mile to reach all potential members is crucial to the group’s success. Circulate invitations widely to avoid giving the impression that you’re “targeting” demographics for recruitment — not everyone with a Spanish last name identifies as Hispanic, and who’s to say a Black employee wouldn’t be more interested in joining your LGBTQIA+ group than your BIPOC one?

Focus on the medium as well as the message: Word-of-mouth promotion is less likely to reach remote workers, so push communications across all your digital channels and ensure that any kick-off events are accessible to remote attendees.

Whether a company is large, small or somewhere in between, the success of ENGs is an example of how the signs marked “do the right thing” and “gain competitive advantage” often point along the same road. By giving workers a support structure to be their true selves at work, you are also giving them a springboard to reach their maximum levels of performance and productivity.

Follow Alfredo Mendez on LinkedIn.