Online communities provide a space for people to do deep work with a sense of belonging. As we come to the end of April's Stress Awareness Month, we consider how community gives us permission to slow down and think better.

The pandemic has created the opportunity for seismic shifts in the way we work, but in the scramble to adapt we’ve failed to prioritise healthy working environments.

While we herald an era of greater flexibility, we seem to have ushered in an increased need for speed. Back to back video calls, always-on comms and disintegrating boundaries between work and home have left people reeling.

Increasingly used to manage global, distributed teams even before Covid, asynchronous channels such as email or a number of project management platforms seem designed less to allow for flexible hours, and more to ensure you never miss a message, wherever and whenever you are.

In some cases, it’s the technology itself that demands an instant response – step away from a busy WhatsApp group and you’ve completely lost the conversational thread. In others, it’s down to management and expectations. A deluge of alerts, the ability to monitor employees’ presence, and our constant attachment to our devices all make for a demanding and demoralising assault on our time and autonomy.

Put it all together and we’re facing a secondary pandemic of stress and burnout.

Granted, in this already overloaded communications landscape the suggestion of adding in yet another channel might feel like a step too far. But placing community-based communications at the heart of your organisation can make a significant difference to employee (and customer) wellbeing.

  • An opportunity to slow down – Not everything is urgent. Communities are necessarily spaces for reflection and evolving thoughts. Actively choosing to manage communications through a community signals collaboration and discussion as a priority, giving participants permission to take time over their contributions.
  • Better quality thinking - More time results in more considered responses. Couple that with transparent, iterative discussion and the quality of thinking is likely to skyrocket. What’s more, searchable community platforms mean that existing thinking is readily available each time the question comes up and can be built upon over time.
  • Greater inclusivity - People interact and process information in a variety of different ways. We’ve certainly not always been sensitive to that during the pandemic. By slowing down and using a channel that supports visual and written communications in tandem with meetings or video calls when absolutely necessary, we can create a space that adapts around individual needs.

    For neurodivergent individuals, having the opportunity to digest information over time can be hugely helpful, as is the ability to think through opinions and reference previous discussions. For more introverted or even junior members of your team, speaking up in a community environment may feel less daunting than in a meeting.
  • Less time in meetings - We can’t get away from the fact that sometimes you just need to hold a meeting, like when a decision needs to be reached quickly and unanimously. But it’s very rare that we are able to cover all the information, take into account everyone’s considered opinion and reach a decision within a 60 minute window. Meetings are often seen as the process of coming to a decision, but in reality they should be the end point.

    Engaging a discussion prior to getting into a room (Zoom) together gives participants an opportunity to digest information, ask pertinent questions, and do any additional research before they need to sign off. Meetings could be less frequent, shorter or perhaps not required at all.
  • Better access to advice and support - Drawing on the collective knowledge of your peers means visibility of shared concerns and often much faster answers than a dedicated email or phone line. And of course, the information stored in your discussions is always accessible, even if individual participants aren’t expected to be. In communities of support, many common questions will arise again and again, so even when responses don’t arrive instantly, answers can often be found straight away.
  • Deeper connections - We are built for connection and remote working is an isolating experience for most of us. But knowing we’re part of a collaborative tribe lowers stress, and alleviates feelings of individual responsibility. It also helps us understand shared concerns, and the transparency of communicating via discussion gives us an opportunity to get to know one another’s style of interaction and thought processes that we might not see via email or quick-fire messaging.

"During the pandemic the community has been there to help those that needed it in a discreet and sensitive manner. For some having something they can be a part of provides a sense of stability, a safe haven, a virtual shoulder to lean on and the ability to know support is there if needed without the obligation to deliver as one would have to in a corporate setting."
Marc Duke, Community Leader, TLA Createch Group

A changing mindset

Transitioning to a community-first environment is a challenge. It is a less formal way of communicating than most organisations are used to and it requires the ability to give up a certain degree of control. It is also all too easy for community to be poorly managed and co-opted into use as just another ‘urgent’ comms platform.

Successful communities are generally aligned around a clear purpose that galvanises activity but done well, there is inherent value in the process of building a community, regardless of the outcomes.  

Community interactions can unlock significant knowledge and insights, drive greater levels of satisfaction, guard against isolation, provide opportunities for recognition and build strong remote relationships. If a community helps your employees feel more connected, supported, heard, validated, involved, valued and invested, the resulting impact on your business cannot be overestimated.

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