Building Community in the Workplace: The Power of Employee Network Groups

By Lee Klarich, Chief Product Officer

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For today’s tech companies, fostering inclusion and diversity are top priorities. Diverse and inclusive teams are simply stronger and more capable than non-diverse teams. But how that works in practical terms varies from business to business. 

It isn’t simply a matter of hiring more women, people of color, or individuals with different abilities or backgrounds. It also goes way beyond the hiring process, to ensure those employees continue to feel included, heard, seen, and valued. This is where employee network groups, or ENGs, can be invaluable.

At Palo Alto Networks, our numerous ENGs provide individuals working at all levels of the company an outlet where they can share concerns, seek advice or input, forge connections with like-minded people, strategize ways to support and grow our inclusion efforts, and learn from each other. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of the leaders of our ENGs and have been blown away by how amazing they all are and their dedication to helping their colleagues. The value they provide led me to volunteer for the role of executive sponsor for our women’s ENG, the Women’s Network Community (WNC).

I’ve been colleagues with several of the members of WNC since the company’s early days. But getting close to their work in this way has given me insight into the value of this group, not just the members, but for the entire company.  In the last year, I’ve seen the WNC offer tremendous moral support and needed human connection at a time when many women felt isolated and overwhelmed. I’ve also found they provide a critical perspective of what’s working and what’s not that provides me and others in leadership positions actionable insights. And its commitment to bringing in speakers and creating professional development opportunities have been incredibly valuable.

ENGs like this one are powerful for companies in a number of ways: 

  • They help people to see the breadth and strength of people like them in the company. One of the things WNC does really well is showing how vibrant a community of women we have at Palo Alto Networks. At one of the group’s last in-person events (pre-COVID), about 500 people — most of them, but not all, women — came together. It was a great reminder of the diversity we have within the company and that although we have a long way to go in terms of attracting more women to the field, their numbers are strong and growing. 
  • They identify and share challenges — for the good of the whole company. For example, in recent months, a lot of the group’s discussions have related to challenges in working from home, including the difficulties involved when the boundaries between them are blurred and work-life balance is disrupted. Some of our discussions have centered on finding ways to encourage people throughout the company to take more time for themselves, to disconnect and find more balance. And in my role, I can take that message to the Product team as well as the executive staff to amplify it across the organization. 
  • ENGs also help create a sense of place, comfort, and familiarity that comes from talking with others who have had similar experiences. And they do a phenomenal job of including other genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds so that we can all learn from each other. Although they’re affinity groups, ENGs are not — and never should be — exclusive. The whole point is education and connection, which can’t happen in a vacuum. 

As with any ENG, this group gives women a voice to enhance their visibility, which sends a powerful message that these are voices the company truly wants to hear. In this way, ENGs can help attract prospective employees by demonstrating our diversity and our commitment to inclusion. 

I urge all companies to discover for themselves the power of ENGs. For those already utilizing them, I encourage everyone, whether you consider yourself a part of that affinity group or not, to participate in whatever way you feel comfortable — by listening to understand, joining a conversation, attending an event, taking a leadership role, or advocating as an executive sponsor.