At Willis Tower, Women Have Created a Community Beyond Their Companies Walls

by PlaceLabJan 21st, 2020

One evening last spring, a group of 50 women gathered after work for drinks at The Metropolitan, an upscale restaurant and business club on the 67th floor of Willis Tower in Chicago. All the attendees worked in the 110-story building, which used to be known as Sears Tower, but only a few already knew each other. Some of them, though, did recognize each other because they had taken the elevator together, or had seen each other when ordering coffee in Catalog, the new curated dining, entertainment and community experience in the Tower. That evening, the women had the opportunity to forge deeper connections with people they pass by every day.

This was the first official gathering of Women of Willis, a new networking group for women. The group was the brainchild of Rebecca Cadena, who works in catering operations at United Airlines, and of Julie DeNardis Lardenoit, a workplace solutions practice leader at ESD. After a chance meeting at an outside networking event, Cadena and Lardenoit realized that they both worked in Willis Tower but had never crossed paths (or ridden in the same elevator, for that matter). They quickly discovered they had much in common, quite apart from their common workplace. They opened up to each other about wanting to connect with more women outside their respective companies, and they wondered how they might create a stronger community in the Tower.

A building-wide network and affinity group can provide something more than any one individual company. It can bridge the gap between the public space of the building and its individual private workplaces.

The two women then approached the EQ Office property team with the proposal to launch an official tower-wide affinity group for all the companies that work in the building. The EQ team enthusiastically supported it as a way of creating a stronger sense of belonging in the community. “Willis Tower is a neighborhood, and Women of Willis is an extension of that neighborhood,” said Lydia Jordan-Parnell, a marketing specialist with EQ Office.

The group now meets every quarter over food and wine at different locations in the Tower. Everyone who works there, regardless of their title or company affiliation, is welcome to join. “Since we all work in the same space, the idea is to synergize best practices and share career resources,” said Cadena.

A Building Community

Today’s talent, especially millennials and members of Generation Z, have come to expect their employers to create community where they work. In an era when so much work happens independently and remotely, these digitally native generations crave association with a tribe and are looking for a sense of belonging. A 2019 story in the Washington Post reported that “belonging” is now the company culture buzzword for Generation Z, and many hiring managers are focusing on the idea to attract talent. Even more than inclusion, a sense of belonging can help people feel that their work is not just about going to the office, but gathering in a place that feels welcoming and supportive, almost like home.

In an era when so much work happens independently and remotely, these digitally native generations crave association with a tribe and are looking for a sense of belonging.

While many companies organize affinity groups, affinity groups that are sponsored by office buildings are less common. Buildings often offer common areas where people can gather, like lobbies, cafes and courtyards, and some even have ice cream socials, but that doesn’t necessarily make a person feel part of the building community. Let’s face it; most people would rather scroll through emails on their iPhone when they’re sitting next to a stranger on a lobby couch, rather than strike up a conversation.

A building-wide network and affinity group offers more than any single company can provide. It bridges the gap between the common areas of the building and individual private workplaces. It provides a space for deeper connections, based on shared interests — and offers both employers and the talent new opportunities and resources for enhancing careers.

Women of Willis aims to break down perceptual walls, to help women feel more empowered and to give them a deeper sense of inclusion in their workplace cultures. In sharing personal experiences outside the office with like-minded women, they can gain a sense of perspective and feel a part of something bigger. Now, when members of the group cross paths as they are grabbing a coffee, taking the elevator, or running an errand in Catalog, the new curated dining, entertainment and community experience in the Tower that is scheduled to open in the spring of 2020. They can feel they are part of a small, supportive village.

While many companies have affinity groups, those that are sponsored by office buildings are not as common.

Key Takeaways From Building Groups Beyond Company Walls

No matter what the reason for coming together — a women’s group, a health and wellness group, or a group of people with mutual interests and hobbies — a building-wide affinity group can offer essential benefits both to talent and to employers. PlaceLab recently spoke with several members of Women of Willis, to understand how such groups can enhance community and a sense of belonging.

Women of Willis was launched at the Metropolitan, an upscale restaurant and business club in Willis Tower.

Takeaway No. 1: Expand Your Personal Network

Women of Willis wants to inspire other women to find new networks beyond their office walls that help to advance women into leadership positions. Expanding professional networks can enhance anyone’s career, as LinkedIn shows. Bonding in person over shared experiences in an affinity group can encourage and accelerate those relationships. For both employers and employees, it opens up an opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas and experiences.

Learning from people who work in different companies can also build the confidence of the members of a group. It creates a safe place where they can ask questions and air career challenges. “It’s great to meet leaders five, 10, 15 years my senior,” says Jordan-Parnell. “I can learn from that advice and wisdom, and then apply it to my day-to-day.” The perspective of people outside the office and office politics can help the talent better understand power dynamics and their role in them. This can help improve their performance and relationships in the office. “It lets members bring more strength to the role they play in their company,” said Jordan-Parnell. “Knowing that we’re all in this together helps to build my confidence and allows me to pass that positive energy onto other members of my team.”

Takeaway No. 2. Build Confidence and Find Your Voice

Building-wide affinity groups create a sense of belonging and help build employees’ confidence so they can have a stronger voice at work. An important goal of Women of Willis is to support belonging and shared identity in today’s workplace. “By sharing experiences with other women I admire, from soft skills to career milestones, I feel inspired to reach for higher goals both personally and professionally,” said Cadena. “The feeling of inclusion is essential for my optimal performance, my desire to share ideas and, to a certain extent, my mood.”

A key part of belonging for the women in the group is to feel confident expressing their opinions authentically. This, in turn, gives them more confidence in sharing their opinions on the job. “When it comes to improving your experience at work, I think having an opportunity to speak your thoughts and ideas is super valuable,” said Jordan-Parnell. “Feeling more included invites me to make a project my own, and that makes me care more about the result of our deliverables.”

Takeaway No. 3: Find Inclusivity Without Exclusivity

One of the challenges of creating an affinity group is to make the like-minded members feel included without excluding those who are different and would nevertheless like to be supportive. For Women of Willis, this idea raised the issue of the role of men in the group. The question was how to promote the inclusion of women without excluding men. “The idea of a women-focused network provides a safe space for women who may feel overlooked or who don’t have the confidence to put themselves forward professionally,” said Angela Burnett, a senior property manager at Willis Tower. Men are invited to all of the events with the understanding that the network is focused on women, even if it isn’t exclusive to women.

No matter what the mission of the building-wide affinity group, the main purpose of any group is to extend and enhance the community, by connecting face to face with people from different companies in the building. The key takeaways, as outlined above, can provide the grounding principles and inspiration for anyone who wants to start a building-wide affinity group. If your building doesn’t sponsor any groups, it’s not necessary to wait for management to launch one. Anyone in a building can bring the idea to their property management team for the support they need, as Rebecca Cadena and Julie DeNardis Lardenoit did. Ultimately, such affinity groups will help create a stronger sense of community, more opportunities for personal and career growth, and enhance the talent’s experience in their workplaces.

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