Digital Collaboration Digital Culture

Increasing inclusion and belonging in staff diversity networks

Increasing inclusion and belonging in staff diversity networks

Deborah Sloan explains how technology removed the physical and psychological barriers to participation in networks promoting inclusion at the University of Ulster.

Author: Deborah Sloan


1.What exactly was the shift in culture and/or organisational practice that you wish to highlight?  

There is no doubt that equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a hot topic for higher education with more and more institutions creating roles, departments and directorates to highlight their commitment to this agenda. However, the focus often tends to be on maintaining reputation externally and evidencing public commitment to equality and diversity i.e. by providing data which ensures adherence to compliance targets or by issuing statements about establishing staff networks to show support for the diverse staff population.  

Next steps to inclusion tend to be under-developed and under-resourced. Inclusion is not about having the right data or statistics. It is all about the emotional and psychological connection staff have, both to the organisation and to others. This requires cultural change and it has to be measured via increased engagement and empowerment. Inclusion leads to the sense of belonging those from diverse backgrounds feel because they are openly welcomed and effectively included in the decision-making processes across the organisation. It is the difference between inviting people to be in the room and creating the conditions which enable them to believe they belong in that room i.e. being seen and heard. When people feel a sense of belonging, they contribute more to the organisation – productivity, wellbeing and morale increase. Conversely, sickness, grievances and attrition decrease. Therefore, inclusion is critical to the bottom line of the organisation. 

2. What did ‘working well’ look like?

The cultural shift was about discovering and developing the right conditions for staff networks to thrive and to drive inclusivity and belonging in the organisation through the usage of the digital environment.  

In many ways, this is simply a story about doors that opened unexpectedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This led to the difference between a culture of closed doors in the physical workplace and the opportunity to open those doors in the online world. Prior to the pandemic lockdowns, anyone wishing to be part of a staff diversity network at Ulster had to make their intentions known. They had to self-identify. They had to be fully visible walking into a room on campus, they had to declare interest in advance, seek permission from a line manager, perhaps request additional travel time to attend on a different campus. There were risks and barriers to involvement.  

Ulster University has four staff diversity networks – DisAbility, LGBT+, BAME and Wo/men’s. Three of these networks were either established or re-established during lockdown using the digital environment. All four increased their reach and raised their profile during this time. Events and conversations all took place online. Networks had the freedom to steer their own paths and to create safe spaces.  

 There were a number of barriers which were reduced or eliminated: 


  • No-one had to walk into a room or seek permission to attend. They could click on a link and arrive into a non-threatening digital environment. They could choose how much of themselves they wanted to reveal – visible or invisible (camera on/off), vocal or non-vocal (mic on/off). 


  • There was increased senior leadership presence at network events as suddenly everyone found themselves in similar disconnected and isolated positions. Many senior leaders agreed to share their personal stories, leading to greater openness and vulnerability. This gave permission for those at less senior levels to realise they weren’t on their own. Shared connections and understandings were made around each other’s circumstances. 


  • The creation of an EDI Steering Group gave all four staff diversity networks a platform to raise issues, share updates and receive support from the organisation. Networks became aligned to the strategic direction of the organisation. Rather than operating in silos, the networks and the organisation started to work cohesively together to drive the inclusion agenda. 

Already, there is evidence that building relationships and connections has increased individuals’ feeling a sense of belonging to both the organisation and to each other:  

 “I think for me, it’s the sense of connection that the network brings through the last year where we’ve all been working remotely. That sense of connection has been so critical, that ability to share how people are feeling at the moment through this network in a safe environment has been really helpful and the way that you facilitated speakers to be really honest in terms of their experience”.  

3. How could this practice be spread?

Organisations need to remove barriers for staff diversity networks to enable them to become empowered to drive forward cultural change.   

Remove physical barriers:  

  • Create safe spaces to discuss issues.
  • Recognise practical/accessibility requirements and increase usage of the digital environment. 
  • Eliminate the need to secure management or other permissions. 

Remove psychological barriers:  

  • Encourage senior leadership to model behaviours of vulnerability and openness. 
  • Listen to each other’s experiences to create shared understanding. 
  • Tell and promote inclusion stories. 
  • Show images of inclusivity and belonging.   

 Remove structural barriers:  

  • Provide forums and platforms for networks to raise issues and seek support. 
  • Position networks strategically to input into organisational policies and practices. 
  • Encourage networks to act as disruptors to lead ground-level change.  
  • Align D&I to other organisational/HR policies and practices i.e. recruitment, retention, sickness, wellbeing.  
  • Resource, recognise and reward networks.   

Join the conversation at the Digital Culture Forum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *