By Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne
March 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
With widespread work-from-home directives for those whose jobs allow, millions of workers are at risk of losing a key piece of their social safety nets: the connection they feel to their co-workers.
The coronavirus and COVID-19 may force us into prolonged “social distancing,” but it does not have to follow that we lose our work-centered relationships and support. In fact, a long-running trend in employee engagement can help alleviate employee fears, lift spirits and maintain productivity. And, even better, we want to keep relational capital in place even as workers balance the new demands of home and work all at once.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) have a history of helping bring calm during rough times. Consider their inception point. During the United States’ first race riot in Rochester, N.Y., the CEO of Xerox started the precursor to today’s ERGs, the black caucus. Their effort to unite black employees to help their community sparked the future growth of affinity groups, which were and are voluntary teams within organizations originally focused on helping underrepresented groups assist in onboarding employees and achieving higher standards of diversity and inclusion.
Fast forward to 2020, and these affinity groups have gone through a few more rounds of evolution. Today they are called employee resource groups, business resource groups, business networks and more. Companies are customizing the names to meet business strategic goals. In addition, there are different types of groups focused on what bonds employees, including non-demographic characteristics. My research indicates three different ways ERGs have evolved:
ERGs continue to grow, and today we see groups focused on neurodiversity, palliative care and more. These ERGs rise to the occasion and help not only their organizations but also their communities.
ERGs have risen to become a powerful center of engagement because they help employees and community members cope.
ERGs have been instrumental in driving diversity by teaching others about their group needs, by helping break the cycle of discrimination through meaningful interactions and by using their innovation to not only create new business ideas but to solve business problems.
That is why today, when fear is escalating from the unknowns associated with the coronavirus, ERGs can be a tool to help drive higher levels of coping within an organization. The bottoms-up approach that is an ERG provides a tool that can be leveraged to help isolated employees who are self-quarantined or who are working from home. Employees trust their peers, and ERG leaders.
Research literature teaches that focused behavior happens when fear and coping are in balance. Today, fear is running high. Grocery stores have empty shelves, messaging about the virus and its consequences are conflicting, and many employees find themselves concerned about lost wages, inability to seek health care and the health and safety of themselves and their families.
In my own research, I have found that coping mechanisms that are extremely effective include communications and enabling along with reflective learning. This means any organization can improve coping with the assistance of employees who are willing to help. And that is what you get with an ERG — qualified and passionate employees who are eager to share their energies to meet business and society goals.
It may be too late to start an ERG if your company does not have one, but if you are in the fortunate position to have organized ERGs, consider embarking them on a journey to assist in messaging, to reach out and help employees and to ideate with the leadership team about unique ways to alleviate fear and increase coping.
Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is an affiliated senior research scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the USC Marshall School of Business, executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute at the University of Alabama and CEO of eePulse, Inc.
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