Building community during a pandemic

The trifecta of the health, social and economic crisis that we have witnessed in 2020 continues to have a long-lasting impact on every dimension of our lives.


As people, our resilience is being tested to the limits, as we slowly come to terms with the fact that the current set of circumstances we’re experiencing aren’t going to change anytime soon.

Inspired by Bruce Daisley’s recent podcast series, I have been thinking a lot about how we build and maintain community during a pandemic recently.

There are a number of questions to answer including how important is being part of a community to our wellbeing? What are the long-term implications of the great remote work experiment on our sense of community? And how do we start to build and in some cases rebuild communities at work?


Where do you find community


The Oxford Dictionary defines community as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”.


The origins of community are likely steeped in religious beliefs and while we have seen that change over the years, it continues to provide community for many people.

In his interview with acclaimed community thinker Casper ter Kuile, Bruce asks where do you find community? It’s an interesting question worthy of some self-reflection. Where do you find community?

For me community is an important part of how I live my life and that’s why it’s one of the Goat Rodeo Project values. My curious mindset and drive to help people, results in me craving to be part of communities where I can serve others and learn. I’ve found community in the Strategic Capability Network, The LeaderSharp Collective and partnerships with some of my favourite people. Following my car recent purchase, I also had the unexpected pleasure of joining the Jeep wave community.


The breakdown of community

Our sense of community has had a bit of a battering over the last few months with social injustices and a divided political climate. It’s concerning to see how we’ve allowed social media to be weaponized to damage trust and to divide society at a time when we should be coming together. As a self-proclaimed optimist, I am confident that with the right regulation we will overcome this concerning development and I have to hope that the information on the news (and dare I say TikTok) is representative of the extremes not the common (sense) majority.

The pandemic has also played a role in eroding community. Think about the gyms you visited. The restaurants you frequented. And of course, the place of work you attended. All of those opportunities to connect feel like distant memories.


Community at work

Over the last decade, work has become an increasingly important source of community. Words like belonging, purpose, social responsibility and citizenship have become a common part of the vernacular as organizations grapple with creating their EVPs.

In episode 4 of the podcast series, Jillian Richardson identifies the legitimate concern of putting too much emphasis on work for all of our community needs. At the end of the day we shouldn’t forget that there is a power imbalance with your employer so be careful not to put all your community eggs in one basket! Regardless, considering a third of our lives is spent at work the impact of community at work is worthy of some exploration.


The new virtual work patterns we have been experiencing since March can erode any sense of community that has been built, if we don’t create new rituals.


Overall, we’ve been pleased with the transition to remote working, but we’re experiencing a disconnection and the cracks are starting to show both for new employees at Google and a number of disadvantaged groups including those working with distractions and with less of a voice.

Casper ter Kuile references the importance of connection at four different levels – ourselves, each other, the natural world and with “the transcendent” (that thing that is bigger than us). If like me you’ve been part of a choir or a flash mob (just once I have to say!), you’d have witnessed the wellbeing benefits and that powerful sense of what Brené Brown calls “collective effervescence” when you do something with a group.

Translating this into the workplace isn’t easy as reported by a recent Insead study. The report identified that 45% of the teams surveyed had experienced a decline in their level of connectedness during COVID and 24% had seen no difference. It’s encouraging that 31% reported an improvement illustrating that it is in fact possible to improve connectedness during a period of massive disruption.


How to build community through teams

The research from Insead identified three levers that predicted a team’s cohesion:


1. Harnessing the communicative power of new technologies

Yes, somewhat ironically technology can help improve connection. That’s why we’ve seen an increase in the use of platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack in recent months as they provide an asynchronous connection that brings people closer together by amplifying the areas of commonality – for example a shared interest such as a project. Smart leaders are using technology to augment their impact not to replace it. They recognise the importance of connection and are ready to adapt their approach based on the situation and the individual.


2. Designing new interaction rituals for the virtual format

Organizations need to find ways to replace the water cooler and post-meeting check-ins. These informal interactions create connection and help build trust. The Insead professors identified that the more connected teams changed the cadence of their meetings to shorter meetings multiple times a week. They also built in structured time just to socialise and connect.


3. Leveraging the opportunity to show compassion and care

Much has been written about the importance of empathy and it is a characteristic of those teams that identified greater cohesion during the pandemic. The teams that thrive are reaching out to each other to provide support. As identified in the Five Behaviours of a Cohesive TeamTM model, building trust provides a solid foundation for the team to thrive.


Building community during a pandemic

At a time when our collective wellbeing is being tested, organizations have a responsibility to create connection and belonging within their structures. They can do this through these three (“easy-say and hard-do”) steps.


Identify your shared purpose

People want to belong to something but need clarity around what they are belonging to. Start by ensuring you have a clarity of purpose that will engage people and appeal to their “transcendent”.


Reimagine your engagement approach

Shifting your engagement strategy from the analog to the new digital world requires careful redesign. The teams reporting more cohesion were deliberate and structured in the actions they took, not afraid to set rules and had the team maturity to hold themselves accountable. Achieving this shift needs a consistent investment and leadership from the top.


Turn empathy from the latest buzzword into a way of being

Empathy is about listening to people – really listening to people – and it’s really hard to do. It’s about creating an environment of true psychological safety where people can speak their truth. That’s why employee resource groups are so critical in building safe environments, but their impact needs to be amplified across the network of an organization.


The community building leader

Finally, there is our role as leaders. Leadership consultant Peter Block said:


“Community requires a concept of the leader as one who creates experiences for others. Experiences that in themselves are examples of our desired future”.


Ensuring we are connected to ourselves allows us to be conscious of how we are connecting with and impacting others. This is the first step and one that shouldn’t be missed. Joining a choir, being part of a flash dance or buying a Jeep are all good places to start.

Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.