Employee Councils: Grassroots Support in an Unsettled World

June 2020
Topics: Inclusion, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Organizational Development
In times of turmoil, MITRE Employee Councils serve as meaningful touchpoints for connection, community, and celebration across our diverse social identities.
Two MITRE employees discussing ideas

“People are craving connection,” says Willow Woycke, chair of MITRE’s Pride Council.

From COVID-19 to global movements for social and racial justice, the world has become increasingly uncertain. Four months ago, we might have connected with colleagues about such issues while walking through the halls, or over a cup of coffee. But these in-person options have changed as our interactions have gone virtual.

Amid the isolation, people are intentionally seeking alternate ways to connect. At MITRE, our employee councils have stepped up in response. With expanded support for employees during this time, the councils haven’t missed a beat—and people are engaging with enthusiasm.

Woycke notes increased participation in Pride social events. Weekly virtual happy hours continue to attract new members and spur new connections.

Even routine council business bears a different tone. The Women’s Council monthly meetings, for example, dedicate time to check in with members.

Women's Council Chair Paulette Huckstep says, “I’ve felt comfortable sharing how COVID-19 has impacted me and my family. Others have been open to sharing similar stories. It’s important to talk with colleagues about what we’re going through.” 

Building Community, Across the Company

With 90 percent of our workforce teleworking, various virtual forums have become especially important in fostering camaraderie: making samosas, Hunger Games-themed team building, Zumba classes, virtual cycling events and races, and "Coffee with a Colleague," among others.

And across such events, councils report increased geographic diversity.

Pride Community Co-chair Maurie Kathan says, “We previously hosted primarily Bedford-based and McLean-based events. Now people across the country are active in the virtual happy hours. And we’ve started a daily Slack discussion topic, where we connect MITRE-wide.

“People have been intentional about getting to know each other. It’s been wonderful to be a resource for people across MITRE.”

Tackling Topics that Matter

As employees connect in more personal ways, they're also addressing important topics: history of the Pride movement, financial fitness during times of economic instability, mental health for people of color, and veterans' support, among others.

The Pride Council, for example, plans to host a virtual commemoration of the anniversary of the legalization of same sex marriage. Though originally planned as in-person event, its virtual format will allow broad access to celebrate the LGBQT+ community.

Mentoring and development also remain top priorities, particularly absent face-to-face connection.

Tiffany Yan, chair of MITRE McLean’s NextUp group for early-career employees, says, “For summer interns, some as young as high-school age, it’s easy to feel isolated working from home. We match mentors and interns—across sites—by common interests and work areas.

"We’ve created additional channels for mentors and mentees to connect. Location barriers no longer exist. We’re able to provide a more unified experience.”

Other development events have had big engagement. For example, a virtual mid-to-late career panel, coordinated by the Women’s Council and jointly hosted by multiple councils on June 3, drew 677 people from across MITRE.

Beyond Connection—Catalysts for Change

When millions took to the streets in protest after the death of George Floyd, Multicultural Employee Resource Group (MERG) Co-chair Bacilia Angel knew silence was not an option.

Angel recalls, “I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video right away. When I did, I was devastated. I thought about my own daughter, who is Black. And I thought about our responsibility within MERG. And I felt I had to speak up.”

Angel emailed her concerns to senior MITRE leadership, including President and CEO Jason Providakes and new Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity, and Social Innovation Stephanie Turner. Providakes recently published a message of inclusivity, hope, and action from his leadership team.

Angel sent her own message of hope to MERG: "The senseless death of George Floyd reminds me that we still have such a long way to go to eliminating bias and living in a world that is safe for all....It’s times like this I’m happy we can be a community of support, encouragement, and safe place to share."

The council’s response, though, reaches beyond the written word. They recently stood up a Racial Equality Coalition to address these critical issues. And they opened a Microsoft Teams channel for people to voice concerns and exchange various anti-racism resources.

Aside from grassroots connections, councils also noted the benefits of strong relationships with MITRE officer champions. These have proven pivotal in advancing employee issues, removing barriers to progress, and providing visibility into the company’s strategic priorities.

Embracing Silver Linings

Across the board, councils hailed the unintended consequences of having to go virtual: access, convenience, comfort level. Even as more people return to office spaces, councils plan to adopt a more hybrid approach to future events.

Our response to today’s crises may leave another unexpected but welcome legacy—increased willingness to have tough conversations.

Jennifer Yttri, Multigenerational Council co-chair, pointed to a recent training series on emotional and appreciation intelligence, where participants shared some raw insights.

“People were feeling the ability to collectively open up about how we’re all experiencing trauma at this time—we all have that mental fatigue. It was great to be able to recognize together how we can develop a different mindset to approaching challenges.”

Yttri adds, “There’s great value in investing time and energy for collective learning, reflection, and growth.”

by Denise Schiavone

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