Maximizing the value of Employee Resource Groups
In this episode, our guest is Kristen Anderson, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Barilla. We chat about how Barilla has introduced Smart Working, and how this prepared them for the lockdowns in Italy and elsewhere. Kristen also shares their work on diversity and inclusion and that Barilla has won a Catalyst Award in 2021 on Advancing Women in the Workplace.
Agnes Uhereczky: Barilla has won the 2021 Catalyst Award for advancing women in the workplace and diversity and inclusion. We know that you have done a great many things in the field especially during the pandemic. But before we have that conversation it would be great to set the scene for listeners even though I am pretty sure that we don't need to introduce Barilla to them. Could you please tell listeners, Kristen, about your role and the geographical scope that you are responsible for and the size of the workforce that would be perhaps interesting information to have?
Kristen Anderson: It would be a pleasure, Agnes, and again thank you for inviting me to join this podcast. So, you can tell from my accent that I am American. I am here as you said in Parma, Italy which is where Barilla is headquartered and it is where Pietro Barilla, the founder of Barilla, had a small bread and pasta shop in the centre of the city and founded that in 1877. My role is Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. It is a global role for our company. I work for the CEO and am leader of our Diversity and Inclusion team. I have a virtual team of members in all of our regions and our objective is to make the company more inclusive and to bring more diverse talent into the organisation. Barilla is a company of about 8.500 employees, half of them in Italy. But, we also have big business in Europe and America and also growing in Asia, as you said most people hopefully know our pasta and sauce. We have 25 factories around the world and half of our workforce are people that have colleagues that work in the factories.
Agnes Uhereczky: In the context of ways of working or new ways of working we know that Barilla started with Smart Working in 2014. Smart Working is the Italian legislative term for flexible working or agile working. And, since then it has also evolved and especially came quite handy when Italy went into the very strict lockdown a year ago, around March 2020. So may I ask you Kristen to tell listeners a little bit about Smart Working and then how it evolved and has prepared Barilla and its employees for the lockdowns and the pandemic?
Kristen Anderson: Definitely. One of the things that we heard very strongly from our employees when we started focusing much more on a journey of diversity and more inclusion is that people wanted more flexibility in the way they worked. We developed, in 2014, a survey, and we surveyed all of our employees in many questions and many different areas but one was flexibility. We developed and expanded what we call Smart Working, which is a flexible work programme, launched in 2014, to be a global programme everywhere in the world. And since 2014 we have spent a lot of time training people on how to virtually work and be more inclusive virtually. How to manage in virtual teams and of course providing the tools, the hardware, the software, and the systems so people could use this tool in the way that they work. That prepared us - our people for working in a different way - very much for what happened as you already mentioned, Agnes, one year ago in Italy. But, it happened everywhere around the Barilla world, around the world. And so it evolved as we expanded it. We've expanded the hours and since one year ago it's been 100% Smart Working for people that want to or where the offices are closed depending on where the different countries are in terms of the phase of the pandemic.
What were the updates or adjustments? Again, we have done surveys on how people feel about Smart Working as work, what are the challenges so that we understand how better to equip employees and managers to be able to interact and be inclusive virtually. What we have heard is that in some ways Smart Working has enabled everyone to have a stronger voice because you don't have a group of people in the room and two people calling in virtually. Everyone is one person behind the laptop, anyone can get Zoom burnout, but one person behind the laptop with an equal voice. I think this is one of the key elements that enabled us to have business continuity during this crisis. Because here in Italy I have friends that work for other companies who had no flexible working so when the pandemic hit they basically either had to put employees on unemployment or they had to try to bring these gigantic monitors that you have in the office and ship them to people's houses. So Smart Working was one of the two key elements that we say helped us last year.
Agnes Uhereczky: That's interesting to hear. What makes me a little bit sad is that there are still many employers out there even one year into the pandemic who are still reluctant to embrace flexible working, remote working for their employees and protecting their health and safety of their employees.
Kristen Anderson: Agnes, you probably saw there has been some survey and polls done recently asking employees whether they would work for a company that did not allow you to have some kind of flexible working. So, it's that most people say: “No”. So I think that it is going be just a basic necessity that people will expect a level of flexible working. And also we find it from our survey, from our people that work in factories that are shift worker colleagues. They also want flexibility because that is one of our questions on our survey. It is not about working from home. The flexibility they want is we ask: “Does Barilla provide the flexibility for you to manage your work and your outside work commitments?”. And the factory worker says “Yes” because we allow them to change their shifts to be able to plan if they have an emergency, to be able to change, and that flexibility is needed in a manufacturing environment.
Agnes Uhereczky: So true, and I am very happy that you have mentioned, Kristen, the factory workers because that's always a question in the dynamics of organisations where they have people working in the office and people working on the shop floor and to have equity and fairness to both in how they can have better control of their working hours, working time, and their place of work. Thank you very much for bringing that in.
Kristen Anderson: Definitely. We have to make sure that we are talking about flexibility, not just one programme that might be very good for people whose jobs can enable them to work from home but to make sure that we are providing flexibility for all the different types of roles.
Agnes Uhereczky: I would like to take the conversation now into the diversity and inclusion realm. In our pre-podcast conversation, one thing that you told struck me is that you highlighted that some key D&I supports were in place before the pandemic that played a very important role actually in taking employees through the pandemic in their wellbeing and the business continuity. Would you mind telling listeners a little bit of, Kristen, the kind of D&I initiatives or supports that you had in place before the pandemic and that you saw came to take an important role during the pandemic?
Kristen Anderson: Sure. There is one element that's been driven by the D&I focus that has helped us connect and keep employees engaged and enable employees to express the difficulties they are having and to take that feedback into developing programmes that have had a positive impact last year. Those are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). I think maybe many of your listeners are familiar with these groups. Companies call them affinity networks or employee networks. But, in 2015, we started a journey of educating our employees on what are employee resource groups and offering them the opportunity to form them. So this is not a top-down initiative, this is a bottom-up initiative where employees can volunteer to form a group whose objective is to increase acceptance of an element of diversity and make the company more open and inclusive to all elements of difference. So, we started that journey in 2015. The employees asked in our Americas region to form ERGs on specific affinities such as the inclusion of LGBTQI+ community and allies, gender balance and work-life balance, and also to have the inclusion of people with different race and ethnicity plus allies.
So, the other element is that you don't need to be a member of that community. You can join because you are interested in opening up the culture to make it more inclusive. And, since 2015 we went from one ERG of 10 people to now having more than 1300 people and employees around the world in 15 ERGs in all of our regions. What we have found is that these ERGs were the big driver of inclusion and empathy to listen to other employees in the groups about what are the problems we are facing in all different regions, in all different countries. And then to come back to the D&I board and HR and say this is what employees are saying, this is what we need to do to support them during this very difficult year. HR was very happy to have the ERGs almost as a focus group instead of having to organize other focus groups. We used them already as a sounding board and as a feedback mechanism. And HR was very quick into taking some of that feedback and developing programmes like for example one in Italy called 'Al Tuo Fianco' which means at your side. It is a programme where you can call one number to get support for tutoring your child or to have elderly care or to have babysitting. Of course always in a safe distance with a mask, always with safety in mind, because people needed immediate kind of support and still do. So the programme is still going. As our regional president says: “These were the two drivers that enabled us to have continuity last year and have employees engaged”. The Smart Working flexibility programme and our Employee Resource Groups.
Agnes Uhereczky: So, the Employee Resource Groups were your eyes and ears on the ground, right?
Kristen Anderson: Yes, because those groups are open to everyone in the region or the country. So, we have a group in Russia called Bridge and it has members from our factory. We have a pasta and bakery product factory just outside of Moscow, and we have an office in Moscow. So they could connect and have virtual events, but also just the possibility to provide feedback and ways for people to listen and understand the issues that people are facing around the world.
Agnes Uhereczky: In a way, these D&I initiatives also sound like a very interesting laboratory of some sorts. Firstly, because Employee Resource Groups are very much a US-based type of initiatives, something that we haven't seen across in Europe. Maybe it is because of the strong trade union presence in some of the sectors, but it is something relatively new, and also for you to see whether what employees' needs are different in the different regions or there are some universal needs of employees in such a situation.
Kristen Anderson: You touch on two very interesting points, Agnes. So, first of all, we found that the needs are different. Some are global, yes, there are some global needs but some are very local. These groups have been, as you said, the sounding board, the ones that bring the feedback that also makes suggestions on how to improve an open environment. We have seen that these groups have increased the acceptance of differences in all of our geographies because we measure that in our D&I survey, which we run every two years. They have been instrumental in making the whole environment more inclusive because as we said many of the members when they first start the ERGs or join the ERGs are allies. They did not feel at the beginning comfortable, maybe saying that they have a disability or that they are a member of the LGBTQI+ community. So almost everyone came as an ally at first. This is the positive of these ERGs because we can think about it as a safe zone. So in that group, people start then expressing and bringing their authentic selves to work and expressing their true selves and not hiding and having to hide their differences. That can spread outside of the ERGs pretty soon.
The ERGs are intersectionality in which they work together, but it is a process as well, it is not a cut and paste approach.
The Americas employees asked first to form some, but then when we wanted to encourage forming them outside of the US we realized that we need to do a lot of explanation, education about what's the benefit to you as an employee and to the company (business benefit) to have these employee groups. Because it is not natural. It is not that every culture says: “Yes, I can understand how these groups can be beneficial”. Now, in our journey, we have ERGs in our factories, which include our shift workers because many companies have them in factories but include just the managerial level. We have specific factory ERGs who are making a difference not only in the culture but almost as identifying improvement areas. We have one ERG in our sales force in France. So we are trying different types of models and we believe this is a way to not only engage employees but make culture change that will eventually be so beneficial for our business.
Agnes Uhereczky: That is so interesting. Listening to you talk about the ERGs but also before talking about Smart Working and flexibility I am getting a little bit the feeling that Barilla doesn't shy away from experimenting and trying things, and seeing what works and what doesn't work.
Kristen Anderson: I think that's the point about diversity and inclusion. It is not one big programme or one big step that will open up the culture to be more inclusive. You need to try all of the different levers to engage more employees. So you need leadership commitment from the top and I am very fortunate to work for the CEO Claudio Colzani and our Chairman Guido Barilla who is on the D&I Board, so we have a lot of leadership commitment from the senior leaders. We have these leaders as executive sponsors of the ERGs and the ERGs are the ground swelling of passion and energy that can make the change faster. But, they can also propose programmes that help employees in learning from each other. So, we do a lot of sharing between the ERGs so they are taking ideas from an ERG in France and someone in Greece and say that Greece Armonia ERG says well that is a great programme, I think that might work for us so adapting that. It accelerates the rate of change.
Agnes Uhereczky: That is great. It is so nice to hear. In a way, I am always thinking that either a company gets it and has it very much driven from the top or if there is no openness from senior leadership it is very difficult to push these initiatives through from the bottom up. I am not saying it's impossible but the way senior leaders, the owners, or the CEO is approaching this, how they are modelling it is just absolutely vital.
Kristen Anderson: The lesson we learned is that we need leadership commitment and you need employee engagement, and you need to take a lot of feedback. So you need to learn from others that have been working on D&I longer than we have. So other companies, organisations that we can partner with that share with us best practices. And then get employee feedback so the survey has been instrumental for us in continuously getting feedback on what we need to work on and we make sure that we, every two years, survey people and our employees and then we tell them what the employee said. So we make sure we cascade the results, because people want to take surveys but they want to hear what everyone says, and then they want to know what the company is going to do, and what the D&I communities are going to do to help in certain focus areas of improvement.
Agnes Uhereczky: How are you going to take what's going on now and integrate it into future plans? What are some of the things that you say: “This is going to change for us, or this is something that we are going to be paying more attention to”? How are you using these lessons learned going forward?
Kristen Anderson: I think this is a question probably that many many companies are facing right now is that we are not going to go back to “normal”. There isn't any normal and it is not going ever go back to the way it used to be although probably many people would like it to. We would like to have the office the way it used to with social interactions and ability to connect face to face, but we realized there is going to be a new way of working and I am sure this is nothing new for your listeners. Right now we are in the process of basically saying how we redesign the offices to be collaboration and culture centered for communication amongst teams. We did a separate survey some months ago, at the end of last year, asking people specifically about the tasks that they do during the workday and how many of them would be better done at home or in a virtual way, and how many of them need collaboration with others. So, we get a sense of how much time do people going to want to spend in the office, need to spend in the office if they can in the future. And, how much time is spent on individual tasks. That is the way that again with the feedback we can design the new way of working.
The piece that we learned a lot last year is that you have to be very conscious about inclusion. We can not just assume that we are going be equally inclusive of someone who is in the office in presence versus someone who needs to and wants to stay virtual maybe most of the days. We could have a tendency to value the people that we see in person and maybe be unconsciously bias towards those people by giving them the projects, or giving them the informal coaching and mentoring over lunch or the coffee machine, and those people that are not in presence can be somewhat forgotten or not as valued in an unconscious way. So, we need to put these ways to include in a formalized way. We spent last year - because everything was virtual - doing a lot of webinars on inclusive language, inclusive behaviours, focusing on the virtual world. But also for the in presence and the office so we can try to start giving hints to employees on how they can continue their inclusion journey personally to be more inclusive in their language and behaviour.
Agnes Uhereczky: I think you are raising such an important point. I have been reading quite a lot of articles lately that touch upon the role of success and the gender difference between men and women about speaking up, being active. I wonder if - and I don't know if this is something you also tackled or you have also found - this is going to have an impact on somehow the well-established strategies that people used to use to get ahead in their careers and get ahead at work. Those who have been more active, more present, more visible, versus those who are maybe holding back a little bit more. And I wonder whether this dynamic is going to be also shaped or changed by going forward and even managers or HR need to be very mindful of not letting people slip somehow into obscurity online and just deal with those who are very visible, very active, very present online. How do you balance that out to give this equal space and platform for everyone? Does this make sense?
Kristen Anderson: It does make sense. It is something that we feel is an area to focus on. Because again if we do not think about it, and focus on it, consciously we can have this unconscious bias coming in. We know when we are stressed, when there are times of crises, there is more bias and discrimination. So, we know that disproportionately women have been affected by the pandemic in terms of being primary caregivers, having to stay at home, helping kids with schooling, and even exiting the workforce in some countries. I think we have all read the articles.
So going forward keeps me up at night is the fact that we don't want to take steps backwards in inclusion.
We don't want to have less diversity in our workforce because people don't have the tools and the flexibility and the support to be able to manage everything and we fall into what you have just said which is valuing people that are there and present. So, we need to make sure that we are very conscious of this, we look at it, in performance reviews and in discussions about people's potential. Are we using language that is more biased when we are talking about that person who was in the office or that person I saw there? So, we have to make sure that we challenge ourselves not to take steps backwards but to use them to go forward as a learning experience. And specifically for certain differences like gender, people racial and ethnicity where they could be disproportionately affected by the crisis and the pandemic, even in the near future as well.
Agnes Uhereczky: Did team leaders or line managers at Barilla find managing people more difficult or more challenging in this virtual way because you have to actively go out maybe and get some people to draw them in?
Kristen Anderson: We did get lots of mixed feedback. Some feedback on the positive side is that we had Smart Working but it wasn't 100% of the time. For some jobs, it was very limited. So, people said this job needs to have more presence in the office. When we needed to go a 100% Smart Working it challenged our assumptions. Some jobs - and I am not talking about the shift workers in the manufacturing facilities - which we thought needed to have much more presence in the office we realised we could be pretty effective doing it virtually. So there were some learning and challenging assumptions. But, on the other side in certain cultures where a lot of the way you manage people is face to face, where you see them every day, a lot of things can change. When your interactions are more like a personal way of managing versus managing just the deliverables, there is a cultural element to that. It can be challenging. Also, people are saying it is so tiring for them to always be in front of the laptop and interact with people, which we know gives us burnout. So, I think this is what a lot of your listeners are also struggling with and hearing from their managers and employees. Again, it comes back to how we design the way going forward where there are some tasks which are much more productive maybe by ourselves at home where it is more flexible, and there are certain things for which we need that interaction that we are lacking right now with people. In a safe distance, in a safe way, that is the objective going forward. It is to design the work-life balance to meet those different goals and be as productive as possible.
Agnes Uhereczky: Based on everything you have learnt would you say there is one thing that you definitely would like to tell others, D&I people, to take away?
Kristen Anderson: The one thing is - what I alluded to before about the think tank team - and this is what we heard from our employees about the new ways of working and it was very very clear is that they wanted empathetic, inclusive, authentic people managers to lead them. They are looking for people who can individually connect with them and understand on an individual basis their needs and be a people manager, not be a subject matter expert, not be the technical expert in any area but to help them develop and to listen to them and understand their concerns and to take their feedback. To be open and inclusive. So, I think the view that we want to go back to the way it was, is, first of all, not going to happen, and it's also not the point. The point is to take what people are saying that did not work and did work and make that be part of the new way of working. And what we heard at Barilla is that people want people managers, empathetic and inclusive leaders.