Community Building: Challenging + Essential
Building community is essential in both business and education. Some of our basic human needs are to be seen, heard, and valued. This can be challenging in a virtual environment.
Virtual environments can provide excellent avenues for work and learning using advanced video collaboration tools. We continue to advocate for beginning with people in mind as you work through technology decisions. As we increase our skills in leading meetings and teaching classes in our virtual environments, one thing we must focus on is building a good foundation of relationships.
The Roots of Building Community
Building community needs intentional design and nurturing to help it develop. Think of building community and establishing trust in a virtual community like a tree — deeply rooted; with strength and stability in the trunk with flexibility and movement in the branches.
4 Principles for Virtual Community Building
These are the four principles that create the foundation for virtual community building. They do not have to be completed in order.
A norm is a standard or pattern of social behavior that is typical or expected of a group. When working with a remote team or virtual class, this is one of the first things that you must consider. Norms are stated standards that refer to process, preparation, and communication practices. Taking norms into virtual spaces requires additional specificity. Be thoughtful about what works to create the most inclusive and participatory environment possible.
- Set and use an agenda.
- “Cameras on” whenever possible and be camera ready.
- Use roles to help facilitate. For example, specifically identify a timekeeper and a moderator.
Begin with a human connection mindset.
Remember that technology is bridging the time and distance between us. Special attention should be given to fostering humanity during the connections. Think about how you would approach an in-person meeting or class and focus on what elements make that work with the people in the room. How can you adapt your approach for virtual connections?
- Use empathy and genuine concern.
- Embrace questions.
- Begin with a connection exercise: physical stretch, playing music, or taking three deep breaths.
- Host social gatherings for people to interact with each other.
In this video, Ken describes the importance of human connection in all types of communication.
Learn about people.
Early in my career, I took a substitute teaching assignment for a class that had a reputation for running off subs. The principal pulled me aside before I went into the class and told me, “They might not understand what you are trying to teach them, but they will absolutely know if you respect them.” The sign that hung in that principal’s office read, “Touch my heart, and my mind will follow.”
Sometimes the task list and syllabus feel completely controlling. Yes, we must get things done. What I am advocating for here is to learn about the people on your team and learn about your students. Connect with them as humans, not as a number. Creating ways for people to be seen and heard while feeling valued pays dividends in productivity and learning.
- Opportunities to share thoughts.
- Ask if there is anything else anyone needs.
- Learn names. Use names.
- Include family (maybe pets, too!).
Learn to use the technology.
Technology is the mechanism for connection. Begin with the basics. Get into the meeting and turn on and off your camera and microphone. We want to ensure that all our team has met the minimum expectation for participation.
To really lean into the power and potential of video communication tools, the direction to move in is getting everyone comfortable and fluent.
Those who are leading virtual groups will grow in their skills for helping and assisting participants. Every platform that I have used has a slightly different experience if you are on a computer vs. an app. Building awareness of this can help you tap into the problem-solving power of the group. Participants and students will grow in their skills to contribute and learn more, too.
- Check in with people to learn about their ability to connect synchronously.
- What is the setup they will be using? Is it a mobile device only? Do they have an external camera/microphone? What type of computer/mobile device are they on?
- Build in time for the “learning mode”. Use a low stress activity to practice the advanced skills (sharing desktop, making a presentation, collaborating on a whiteboard, facilitating break out rooms, etc.) before using them in a high-stakes learning or presentation setting.
It is definitely easier to jump right into the tasks and the content than to take the time to build community. The time spent focusing on strategies in these categories will pay off as the group develops and works on accomplishing common goals.
Virtual community building doesn’t have to be in-depth or elaborate to be effective. If you need help thinking through these principles, designing virtual events, or simplifying your current video communication solution, we can help.