Intentional inclusion acts as a touchstone for remote workers at Nelnet.
Solution: Establish a formal process for creating, and maintaining, associate resource groups to ensure the DEIB initiative achieves positive outcomes.
Business impact highlight: Employee participation in the groups has increased exponentially, resulting in higher rates of overall employee retention, engagement, and belonging.
Maintaining a consistently engaged culture through a turbulent time for a company and its employees can seem like a daunting, if not impossible, task. In the wake of the pandemic, companies everywhere struggled to reinforce their culture, values, and connect with employees in a remote landscape. With many organizations committing to a hybrid work environment indefinitely, more and more leaders are asking how they can set up workers for success when building, connecting, and sustaining virtual relationships.
Nelnet is a service company specializing in consumer finance, telecommunications, and K–12 and higher education with 8,500 employees in locations across the US. Ninety percent of the company’s workforce has primarily worked from home throughout the pandemic, prompting a need for Nelnet to address culture, belonging, and inclusion in a hybrid work environment.
The company responded by intentionally expanding its associate resource groups (ARGs), which address opportunities to increase diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence. At the time, Nelnet only had two ARGs and sought to create additional safe spaces in which employees could participate and interact with others in associate-driven, identity-based peer groups.
The program expansion included making the groups more remote friendly, multiplying the number of opportunities to get involved, and increasing visibility of ARGs to attract more members from all areas of the company. Those goals necessitated a significant investment—both in time and funding—from Nelnet.
The executive processThe director of learning and diversity led the expansion and created an executive committee to oversee the effort. The committee focused on design, strategy, and implementation, as well as empowering employees to take charge in the creation of ARGs.
During a strategic meeting, the executive committee established an ARG committee to manage the creation and continuation of the resource groups. The ARG committee comprised three employees who were passionate about forming these groups.
The executive committee then sent out a survey to all staff to determine which groups to form. The executive committee identified the first group of many they would create: the Young Associates Community.
For each ARG, there must be co-chairs. As employees volunteered to start and lead a new ARG, they met with the ARG committee and received a template charter to outline their respective ARG’s pillars, how their group connected to company values, their proposed event plans, and both board and general membership guidelines, all of which the ARG committee presented to the executive committee for approval.
To prepare for sudden changes in ARG leadership, the group’s co-chairs must develop a succession plan for their positions and the rest of the board. The charter helps outline each position’s duties and ensures that when a new person steps in, there is sufficient training available to continue the group’s success.
Upon receiving approval, the ARG committee uses in-house technology to assist the co-chairs with membership tracking. The co-chairs use existing connections across the company to find other employees who were interested in being more involved in the group.
The employee processARG membership primarily involves hour-long monthly events based on each group’s respective pillars, regular communication through Microsoft Teams channels, and 30-minute casual meetings to bring the group together. Additional features that groups have added include book clubs; newsletters featuring members’ contributions to the company; relevant resource lists such as environmentally friendly product lists or local Pride events; and accountability groups.
The ARG committee’s executive chair encourages ARG leaders to attend Nelnet’s executive committee meetings each month to report their progress, share ideas, collaborate, and influence the future of the programs.
The core and additional components ensure that each group is focused on connecting members based on shared interests. By providing a variety of formats and regular opportunities to participate, members can forge an experience that works for them to create sustained relationships with people from across the company, no matter their role or location.
All aspects of ARGs, from the planning process to hosting events, take place during work hours to be accessible to everyone.
Planning for longevityOne year after launch of the expanded program, the company allotted a budget to support ARGs in carrying out their stated mission and goals. In addition to funding items such as ARG-branded T-shirts and tote bags, the budget helps cover membership fees for active ARG members participating in external organizations that are relevant to their ARG (for example, young professional groups, the NAACP, Urban League, and LGBTQ+ chambers).
In addition, the ARG executive committee allocates funds to celebrate National Diversity Month, bring in guest speakers, and award prizes for ARG contest winners. The committee has also invested money into building internal systems and reporting platforms that assist in keeping track of data, statistics, and surveys.
Now, two years postlaunch, Nelnet boasts more than 800 members (roughly 10 percent of the company) across 11 groups. As a result of joining an ARG, members report feeling more heard, more knowledgeable about DEI-related topics, more engaged in the company, more connected, and most importantly, more included in the hybrid work environment.
In 2022, membership across all ARGs increased 268 percent; a similar trajectory is projected for 2023. In addition, 28 percent of participants are involved in more than one ARG.
Further, since the launch of the additional ARGs, the company has seen measurable increases in:
- Employee retention. Ninety-two percent of employees in ARGs are actively employed at Nelnet, which is nearly 10 percent higher than the overall company retention rate.
- Employee engagement. Seventy-nine percent of ARG members feel more engaged in the company.
- Employee sense of belonging. Ninety-eight percent of ARG members feel included at the company.
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